Saturday 2 October 2021

Learning the Pause

As if with a slow inhalation, the monastery is inching out of lockdown and into increased openness. For the past weeks, the closure had been more intense on account of having four members of the community sick with Covid: although getting sick is a part of life, we felt a responsibility to not pass on our bugs to members of the public. Thankfully, the infected people have all recovered, and we can now allow visitors in to share our space – albeit in a limited way.

So there has been a blockage in terms of what we expect. It happens quite often: the bus or train is late; the visitor doesn't show up; the machine breaks down – and so on. And when that happens, your mind can do one of a number of things. Firstly, you can get annoyed and blame someone (or blame yourself). Secondly, you can feel depressed and cheated by life. Thirdly, you can wait patiently. And finally, your mind can pause, open and appreciate the space where the will relaxes and it feels good to be conscious with nothing to do and nowhere to go. 

The significant point is that when you can’t get what you want, your underlying tendencies to get exasperated or feel let down come up – and they then interpret the situation as ‘lazy disorganized people’ or ‘no one considers my feelings’. Actually there are generally a number of causes as to why things don’t go my way — the Buddha just called it ‘dukkha’ – but the immediate reaction and interpretation are an indication of tendencies in one’s own mind.  So just to pause at that point – reactions are normal, but we can read them, learn what they are, and that they take us into suffering. We don't have to guess at why things aren't going according to plan; and jumping to a conclusion is always a move into the shadows of one's own mind.  So, pause. A pause is not a disapproval or a judgement; it’s an opening of attention. And that allows us to respond to our reactions with mindfulness and compassion.  Pausing is an essential, deep and accessible practice.

Can you allow ten seconds for a pause in the midst of what arises? When you take note of instances of people losing their temper or following impulses that lead to harm, even death, it’s  obviously important.  And it seems easy in theory, but the difficulty, and the learning, is that you have to face your planned drive, as well as meet the reflexes and reactions that arise when you do that: 'What’s the point of pausing?’ ‘Not now’ ‘ I have to get on.’ Pretty convincing, aren't they?

Meeting and investigating this urge to get on (bhava tanhā) is what meditation training is about.  Take mindfulness of breathing: the practice is to follow the exhalation into the pause phase where the abdominal muscles come to rest, as if there is no next inhalation. Then let the inhalation gather, fulfil itself and also come to rest with the upper chest and throat lightly expanded. The pause phase is the crucial bit: it’s when the will lets go. That brings a relaxation at the end of the out-breath, and a bright opening at the end of the inhalation. As you tune into that pause, and trust letting go of the next moment, or of what to do, or even who you are – there is a growing sense of release.

Monastic life is full of pauses: we wait for things to arrive; wait for everyone to gather before the communal rituals begin; wait for the bell to ring before taking the meal. And in training, one is encouraged not to do anything whilst waiting, not even to talk. It all seems pretty inefficient and frustrating, even disrespectful, at first: a scenario wherein people are late, things aren't happening on time.... But that's a miserable way of looking at it; you can only do that for so long before you recognize that waiting for the expected thing to happen is suffering – and maybe something deeper is possible. Gradually you learn to hold expectations lightly and be prepared to let go of them, rather than wait for the expected thing to happen.

The difference between waiting and pausing is that the pause deepens beyond being patient. You might support the pause by being mindful of your body standing or sitting, or through reciting a mantra, but a deep pause isn't about picking up even a subtle form of mental activity. It's about the mind opening beyond preoccupation. Then, instead of a tangled energy of remembering, chewing on and restraining one's wishes, there is a restful open energy. Having fully understood that attachment to desire is the root of suffering, the mind goes into a different mode. Rather than wrangle or distract, it relinquishes will power and the need to make things go a certain way. Instead there’s an opening into steady awareness. Maybe dying could be like this.

Rather than numbing out, this open state allows the topic of one's expectation to go down like the sun – and arise again in a fresh light. One can then pick up the thread of what one was doing or talking about with a fresh mind and a shift in perspective – or one can decide to drop it. There's an opportunity for a transformative choice. Because unless you've deliberately paused and released it, a thread of grievance or passion has just gone into storage – and will arise later. Threads don't drop by themselves when the mind that is holding them moves into the background. But the possibility that the pause offers is to place a topic under an open timeless light; having reviewed it, its basis can be seen and relinquished. And at other times, having let an idea rest in that aware space, new angles and insights into it arise as the mind re-engages.

There are mundane benefits in pausing. I've noticed this when I teach with someone translating what I say into another language. What seems to work best is if I talk for about three seconds, then pause while that is being translated ... and so on, to and fro, for up to an hour. You might think this is very disjointed and difficult, but bilingual listeners say it's like hearing the teaching in stereo; the translator finds that they don't have to think, they just speak as they're hearing it; and I find it helps to provide the pauses in the mental flow that allow a point to be further expanded, a nuance added, or for the line of thought to be moderated or steered. Yes, maybe rebirth can be like this.

Recently I discovered that I could pause while writing – writing by hand, that is. My handwriting has deteriorated over the years as it has increasingly been replaced by typing. I do prefer to write letters by hand, because a hand-written note carries irreplaceable character and care; an intimacy and uniqueness that a typed message can't. But it feels disrespectful to write something that the reader has to strain to read. Working with this, I've noticed that a balance has to be struck: there has to be the ongoing flow of thought that is leading the writing, and yet if it runs too fast, the hand that follows it loses some of the dexterity that is required to form the letters. The 'o' squashes up against the next letter, the 's' loses its curves.... However, studying manuals on improving handwriting, I found that too much attention on forming the letters seemed to block the natural flow of thought. What was really needed was to moderate the mind. Working from that perspective, I realized that I could pause at any point in writing a word; the mind would then hover for a vital second to attend more carefully to the lettering without losing the train of thought – and that led to an improvement on all counts. Not every thought has to be completed, let alone expressed. That's a point worth pausing over.

The pause from thinking or planning also offers the amazing occasion of sharing an open space with others. Another element of monastic life is that you don’t have to talking about this or that in order to be with another person. It's strange but understandable that at first shared silence (rather than shutting down) can feel awkward and almost unbearable as the gestures, repartee and personal topics fall away. Still, in the presence of meditation masters that's what happens. It takes some trust, but opens into shared presence – a quiet and cool form of love.

Of course, these past 18 months in varying degrees of lockdown have been an intense workout as what has been put aside is much of the fabric of our lives: sangha meetings, festivals enriched by hundreds of ebullient supporters, and travelling to teach and share Dhamma ... with no great change in sight. 'Can you come next month?' 'Who knows?' 'Next year?' 'Not certain.' Yet it's good to pause and review how much one identifies with circumstances and occupations. And to also pause before getting born into disappointment and irritation: instead of getting upset about it, it's good to know how much this life of sharing means. It's a Refuge. Someone who takes that sense of shared presence into their heart is never lost or alone.



Friday 14 May 2021

Sharing presence online

This is  not a painting. It is the most detailed image of a human cell to date, obtained by radiography, nuclear magnetic resonance and cryoelectron microscopy. What it shows it that at the most fundamental organic sense, we are a community of oddballs. 

[Thanks to Evan Ingersoll and Gael McGill, Harvard Medical School]

Like many of you I expect, gazing at screens has become part of my daily life.  And for this past year, talking and listening to them (or more accurately to the images that appear on them) has also become an occupation. A button is pushed, a line or cluster of thumbnail faces appear, clicks occur – and away we go. But where? In the internet age, one must always regard the attractive website, the pleasant face and smooth words with circumspection. However, public presentations have always merited caution: deluded mystics and frauds write spiritual literature, demagogues and moneyed interests take over the media. We’re easily taken in by superficial appearance.

You could say that superficiality is unavoidable: if, that is, mind-consciousness is something like a screen and faces of people you have connections with just pop up on it. You look at them, they look at you and at some time switch off, or zone out. Sharing absence. It’s a bleak scenario, one that doesn’t acknowledge the fullness of being embodied: that bodies have intelligence and store past kamma in their nervous systems; and that sharing presence is a powerful act that doesn’t cease when the face disappears. Presence is our natural foundation, and when it’s shared, it's like entering another room in your house. And a sense of that room remains.  If you enter it, that is - through deep attention.

Collective intelligence sometimes is and sometimes isn't that wise or deep. Compare the intelligence of mothering, the collective spirit of a sports team, the synchronicity of a band, the creative power of group thinking, the strength of a public demonstration, or the intensity of a riot. Potentially, the most stable shared presence comes through spiritual attunement: the power of a collective presence that is collected, but is not about doing things. Such presence, even with no physical contact and in silence, is different from being on your own.  It can anchor you, and also take you into deep inner territory. 

In the pre-Covid era, a year or so ago, a friend in South Africa described the effect that even a few seconds with the Dalai Lama had on a group of young men. They weren’t into Buddhism or spirituality, but as he was visiting an educational establishment where they had received awards, they were invited to file past him briefly, meet for the length of time of a handshake and move on. She said there was not one of the young men who weren’t brushing away tears as they left his presence. Imagine then what it must have been like to be in the presence of the Buddha! And how every word he said would have etched itself into your heart and mind. Conveying information has only ever been one aspect of teaching the Dhamma; furthermore, it was always a spoken transmission, uttered in shared presence where the timing, the tones, and the embodied energies could all play their part. Being in the presence of another and having the defensive shields and the personal presentations fall away; just experiencing self-acceptance and the truthfulness of meeting straight from the heart – that’s a spiritual transmission in its own right.

So I must admit that teaching online presents certain difficulties. If I have a teaching style or method, it's one that entails establishing a firm grounded presence with where I’m sitting. This is more tricky when I’m sitting on a stool in order to face the screen and my body isn’t held in the same stability that occurs with the lotus positions. The connection to what's beneath and around me isn’t entirely absent, but it is reduced. I find myself less in flow, and having to think while I’m teaching. A more apparent snag is the reduction in shared presence with the people I’m teaching (or better, guiding); a presence that enriches the sense of rapport and also moderates what and how much I say. There is a fine weave of somatic energies that develop in a group gathering; when people are meditating together, this helps to draw teachings out of me. It also gives me the sense that what I’m transmitting is being received. So I get a feel for where to go in a talk, and what is enough. However in a gathering of over 200 people online, there is little of that. There are also less opportunities for dialogue. So with such minimal ‘real presence’ I find that my awareness is leaning into the screen to reach people, and I’m perhaps talking too much. I can feel that I’m speaking to others, but I don’t get a sense of being heard. It’s odd; like wearing a blindfold.

There are of course the bonuses of online teaching: no travelling, no visas, no airports, border interrogations, carbon guilt and jet lag. And there’s the positive aspect: a glance at the labels underneath the thumbnails presents an occasion wherein people as far apart as Mexico, Oregon, Germany, Singapore, South Africa and Taiwan are linking up. There’s awe at witnessing a teaching trickling into diverse contexts. And for those who participate – how wonderful to be part of a global presence that’s divided by the mere frame of an image; to get a sense of connection to other ordinary people in their living spaces and basements – with the occasional dog or cat wandering through. It is an echo of something we used to take for granted, while making efforts to disguise it with business or some other purpose; the sense of mingling. However, give deep attention to what makes mingling comfortable, when it doesn't, and what it highlights. The sense of safety is crucial. Inattentive mingling is liable to be insensitive to deep issues in the heart.

It’s said that babies and infants need to be physically held in order to develop as proper relational human beings. Failing this, autism or even death may occur. So at what age does that need pass away? Five? Ten? We might assume that as the years trickle by, the need for embodied contact gets replaced by our being wrapped in conversations, or by living with others and exchanging words now and then; or by getting wrapped up in a book or glued to a screen. I think not. Although the distracted life of screens and timetables may take up so much of a person's attention that it does hold them, it's a fragile kind of wrapping – not the deep immersion of somatic presence. Switch off the input for ten minutes and what happens? Chaos or in-depth settling? You can't substitute presence for absence.  Humans need immersion in somatic presence. That lingers; that's what Buddhist meditation is (supposed to be) about.

In solitude, there is a need for embodied presence – 'mindfulness immersed in the body' in the Buddha’s language; it takes awareness out of the conceptual and abstract and places it in something that's vitally sentient. The Buddha likened such immersion within (not of) the body to a stake to which one could tether the visual auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and conceptual senses so that they no longer pulled awareness/citta hither and thither. It has a non-conceptual intelligence that stands apart from the buzz and waffle of the thinking mind and the upheavals of the heart, and it’s not personally driven or engineered. It’s the sense of the whole body, settled in its space. Whereas the personal and the emotional and the conceptual can get taken over by embedded anxiety or trauma, the whole body in its space accesses safety, a sense of belonging and non-compulsiveness. This is an essential foundation within which to dwell in and work; so much so that Buddhist training recommends dwelling in the company of a teacher or in a group that's formed around presence.  When you're not settled in your own presence, then that of a trustworthy other is a spiritual requisite.

Sharing presence. Despite the oft-repeated exhortations – and the personal inclinations – to seek solitude, in training monasteries the relational sense has be active to operate within the etiquette that moderate group dynamics, seniority and authority. And although the waking day is apparently divided between duties on one hand and meditation on the other, the silent communal meal, and the communal work – stacking firewood, sweeping the monastery – have more than an external, functional purpose. Even in this diluted, everyday, form a shared embodied foundation keeps things sane and related, even when there’s not a lot of personal contact.

A grounding in trans-personal presence helps supports security in relationship. Topics and circumstance then rest on the non-doing of presence rather than override it. Matters can be handled from a grounded perspective. Of course, this deep attention is challenged by and goes against the tendency that people get conditioned into: one of immediately launching into business (to be efficient and not ‘waste time’) or personal topics (whether a way to handle these has been established or not). This can be disastrous. So mindful mingling is quite a skill; it has to be learnt. In British monasteries, the opportunities come with quiet tea breaks, or as tidying up after the meal comes to an end – or sometimes while the tidying up is supposed to be going on.  In Thailand, the mingling instinct comes out in more direct ways: monks just turn up from near or far to meet. As the abbot of Wat Pah Pong commented at one of the annual mass sangha gatherings – ‘we meet just to meet’. Unlike business meetings, there’s no agenda. Bowing on entering a room, or when meeting a teacher helps to put a check on compulsiveness. If a senior teacher is involved, some Dhamma may be expressed. A foot massage may be offered. Otherwise it’s just letting things flow from presence. This can be criticized as time-wasting and idle chit-chat, but something more fundamental is occurring. There's a sense of somatic or psychological co-forming, an energising of relational energies, an affirmation of belonging. Mutually massaging with presence. This supports community harmony, helps awareness to be held less tightly inwards, and allows fixed or afflictive perceptions around self and other to be eased, often more or less wordlessly. Some business then ceases altogether, or doesn’t need much discussion.

Shared presence can be deepened simply by tuning in to one's own somatic presence, getting grounded – and then gently opening to the felt fact of another person. Remember: stay on your own somatic ground, and open your attention from there. Acknowledge, but don't go into visually-based perceptions, but do attend to the voice. This may take a few minutes, but it saves hours of superficial mis-contact, and mistakes. In its own deep truthfulness, the presence of others adds to one's own. And it doesn't entirely pass away with separation. In cases when one has shared presence with others in a fully conscious way, the sense of meeting is like returning home – to that larger house. 

Deep attention to one's somatic presence also indicates what to be on guard against. If the other can’t bear silence and negotiation of contact, they’re not coming from an authentic place. And if you can't maintain a disengaged but embodied presence, you'd better get grounded – soon. That's where you're welcome and safe; that's the place to receive teachings. So even with online occasions, it’s good to have pausing and acknowledgement; to enter one’s own presence and see, listen and speak from there. Be aware of the embodied tones and breath-rates. Books, for all their usefulness and portability, can't bring you there. Then again, neither can blogs.

Friday 26 February 2021

Practice Notes: Whole Body Awareness

Why meditate? What‘s the point? Nibbāna? Ultimate Truth? Maybe more directly it’s for peace of mind, and to resolve some emotional or psychological issues. So... better steady the mind. And to do that, focus on something steady, like breathing or walking ....

But when you practise with the body what comes to the fore is physical discomfort. With a good exercise system and using cushions and other supports, you can probably get around that. Then there are the buzzy thoughts, but they can be quelled by mindfulness immersed in the body. More problematic then is the obstacle to that immersion. This is a conglomerate of afflictive moods and a corresponding somatic imbalance. These are embedded in the body’s energetic field/nervous system, and aren’t due to current circumstances. For sure, we may have the adequately-honed blaming capacity that focuses on how that insensitive person’s presence, or the temperature in the room, or that memory (and so on) is ruining my meditation, and making me restless, tense or irritable. But why, even after eight hours’ sleep do I still feel tired, even depressed? Actually all emotion is related to this somatic sense that in daily life gets stressed and exhausted by urgency, stimulation and lack of proper care. It also carries the results of previous actions and formative experiences that have occurred to you.  In the Pali Canon it’s called ‘bodily formation’, kāyasaṇkhārā, and getting this clear is a major step in Dhamma practice.

This somatic sense is a bodily sensitivity that’s not about physical contact; it’s the sensitivity that is attuned to perceptions - felt interpretations of the world. By means of this, the body senses that it’s in danger, or can relax and feel uplifted. Emotions arise as the mind scans that. Famously, the psychologist William James noted that if attacked by a bear, we run first and get frightened later. I wouldn't recommend finding a bear, but when you're re-united with an old friend, or receive a loved visitor when you're sick, or win at a performance, or get wrongly accused – nothing touches your body, but there’s a somatic flush. This is not a minor detail, it’s how we soft-skinned clawless creatures survived, and can survive in the wilderness, and how we bond. It’s tells us immediately what moves us - but it doesn’t always sense things clearly (maybe the bear is a man wearing a costume). This is because it is attuned to perceptions, which are always mental interpretations of experience. The first point of meditation is to clean out the dullness, tension and spin that perceptions of past events and behaviour have left as in your system.

But although this is an important point, it's not arrived at through focusing on a point in your body. It’s about accessing and settling whole body awareness. Think it through. This teaching came from forest-dwellers. Now say you’re in the wilderness: you’d better be alert; but don’t focus on any single point in any of the sense fields. Focus too intently on a sight and you might trip over a root or not detect the odour of a tiger on the wind. Get absorbed in what your feet are feeling, and you might get spiders' webs in your face. Start planning the trip, wondering how long it will take and whether you should or can do this – and you'll get completely lost. No, to get through the wilderness, indeed to survive, you have to have an overall awareness, grounded in your body in the here and now. Your thinking has to be minimal, non-obsessive but ready to report on what’s needed; you notice sights and sounds, but you don’t follow them carelessly. You notice bodily discomfort, or whether you’re tired or weak or excited – but you handle that information pragmatically and don’t cloud your mind with complaining and worrying. In fact you steward your reactions and emotions: ‘No point judging and accusing, stay focused on what can be done right now.’ ‘Do I have the strength to deal with that, or should I go another way?’, ‘Am I getting fearful and careless? Then take a few long calm breaths.’ Note the last, it's not about advice; it’s a matter of using a bodily process to steady an embodied process. And it’s something we do instinctively: breathing in and out is the governor of kāyasaṇkhārā; that’s why it’s such a crucial meditation practice.

Well, although the trees have been chopped down (and so on) we're still in the wilderness – the external geo-political and societal jungle, and its related internal tangle. Could whole body awareness and its intelligence be refined in meditation, when we’re in the jungle of our memories, perceptions and reactivity? Because this is how citta arises: rather than thinking in abstract, it's the intelligence that processes the relationship between the vulnerable body and the world that opens directly around it.

For forest-dwelling contemplatives this citta intelligence, is the important thing. Because it’s relational, it can be attuned to provide moral guidance. It can also be liberated. It’s a different aspect of mind from the concept-wielding, non-relational manas. For us literate types, whose intelligence is focused on concepts, pages, screens and symbols, and whose way of assimilating information occurs through racing the eyes across a page of squiggles and figures and rapidly translating them into meanings, manas is the leader. It doesn’t tune into the body and that sensitivity. In the imbalanced scenario of hyperactive thinking, promises, planning and general media deluge, as body gets lost, so does heart – and truth. This is convenient in some respects – you can get on with your work and not care what’s happening around or even within you – but that working mind is dangerous. This is what the effective servant of a totalitarian corporation or a government uses. This is how people work themselves to breakdown. Somatic imbalance leads to social and personal imbalance.

In brief then, direct practice means accessing that somatic sense and supervising it with citta, so that it eases out of stress, lethargy and passion. The entry to this is to refer to the whole body as you breathe; by so doing citta encourages the somatic sense to open and allow the breathing to discharge tension and constriction, and provide refreshment (pīti). Focusing on a single point won’t do that. If you do that, the likelihood is that you miss aspects of the whole field ( the tightness of the residues of anxiety in your belly for example). In fact, if you care to look, you won’t find anywhere in the Buddhist discourses when you are advised to place your attention on a point in your body. No tip of the nose breathing, no point in your foot walking, no tightening up to concentrate. (Sure, you can scroll through the parts of your body conceptually ‘hair, spleen, fluid in the joints...etc’ but that’s a conceptual scan, not a direct citta sensing - you can’t sense directly whether you even have a spleen).

But if concentration is needed, and it certainly would be more comfortable if my mind wasn’t leaping into fantasies and anxieties, how does that happen? Right effort, right mindfulness... Yes, and they are moderated by applying them to the whole body; this negates the constricting effect of wrong effort. Constricting may be so normal that you don’t notice it, or you think that that’s what goes along with right effort. This is because of something that modern literate types are associated with that people of the forest weren't: the presence (or  absence) of a paid job. Through this you may have become so accustomed to tightening up into  ‘got to do this, got to get there, as quickly as possible...’ mode that you don't even notice that you're losing heart. You may take it for granted that when you're working, your own body, as well as other people, has to fit your strategy or be ignored or shut out. You may have unconsciously made meditation into work (=something serious with regular hours, definite rules, goals and assessments). Your mind can find notions and even teachings to support that. But you can also realise that following that means losing your whole body, which gets reduced to a few bands of pressure around your head. Maybe you think that’s good, and that's what concentration is. But none of that is there in the suttas. What they say are things like ‘thoroughly sensitive to the entire body...breathe in...breathe out’(M.118)*, and ‘it is natural that the mind of one feeling pleasure is concentrated’ (A.10:2). The teachings on mindfulness of breathing point out that steering to that whole body is the way to calm the bodily formation (aka gain somatic balance),experience refreshment and ease and get concentrated.

In practising this, the conceptual mind can point to the whole body as readily as to a small point; moreover the rhythmic flow, interconnectedness and internal sympathy of the body as a whole are much better at encouraging the heartfulness of citta. What most people need these days isn’t another work project, but goodwill, encouragement, patience – and a body. As the Buddha puts it as ...’memories and intentions based on the household life are abandoned; with their abandoning his mind [citta] becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, [ekodhibhutam] and concentrated. That is how a bhikkhu develops mindfulness of body.'(M.119:21) And ‘In one whose body is tranquil and who feels pleasure, the mind becomes concentrated.’ And 'So I steadied my mind internally, quieted it, brought it to singleness, and concentrated it. Why is that? So that my mind should not be strained.' (M.19:8) When the heart gets settled, it is concentrated. Because meditative concentration isn’t on an object. You won’t find any sutta that relates samādhi to focusing like that; instead the teaching is that when the citta settles into itself, it is concentrated. Happy, settled, peaceful - and cleared of hindrances. Then your seeing and knowing isn’t fogged over.

So how do you work towards that end? How to get through the chattering ‘must do’ mind, the sagging or fidgety body, the ‘get me out of here’ heart? First pick up some self-caring (‘Come on, we’ve got to get through this wilderness, let’s go carefully..’) and some aspiration (‘This is the territory that the Buddha moved through’). Pick up some heart and set it upright. That will probably bring your spine upright. Then get comfortable enough in your body, enough to support steadily expanding your awareness so that the experience is one of being open but sheltered. The Buddha referred to sitting under the canopy of a tree, but you might imagine standing in a shower or floating in the ocean. The sense is that you experience the body as entirety within safe space.

Then tune into the fact and the experience of breathing – the rhythmic swell of it – and feel the upper body being regularly massaged by that. This can trigger agitation and a sense of not wanting to be touched – the somatic sense may need some heart gestures of safety and trust – but as you get to relax any of that, the body begins to slowly release its contractions and numb places and feel more whole and at ease. If you keep widening your awareness incrementally, a quiet and vibrant energy gets felt in your arms, legs, face and feet.

Once you get the sense of the whole body in its space, you can apply the awareness (citta again) that it opens to great effect because of ‘somatic sympathy’ – what the body senses, the citta picks up and takes in. This is the principle of absorption (jhāna). You can initiate this process through including your hands and feet in embodied awareness. Notice that if you relax your palms and linger in that effect while including the soles of the feet in your awareness, they will relax too. You don’t have to move your awareness in line with the breath-rhythm – as with ‘inhale into left foot, exhale out of left foot ... inhale into right foot’ and so on – you can linger in one happy/open/ relaxed part for a while as breathing goes on, until you feel that area of the body respond. You might imagine having a small ball in each palm or sole that steadily receives and inflates/subsides with the breath. When clenching or numbness has gone and the area feels full and rich, you can bring other parts of your body into that focus. After a while you can imagine the ball is in the centre of your body and as you breathe, it expands and subsides through palms and soles simultaneously. This effect can spread to cover the entire body; and accordingly the somatic energy is experienced as a smooth and steady field. To summarise: if you open your citta into the comfortable energies in your body, it will dwell in and absorb into them: the uncomfortable areas fade into the background or get resolved by having healthy energy move through them. And as the body settles, the citta feels pleasure and settles. That’s samādhi.

On that last point, if you feel restrictions in your body, don’t go into them, but place awareness over them. It is helpful to steadily widen your awareness when doing this. For example, with a tight chest, widen across it to include the small cavities where the arms join the trunk and then extend down through the hands. For the abdomen, widen out through the grooves where the legs join the trunk. Imagining small ‘breathing balls’ in these arm-chest cavities and leg-abdomen grooves can be useful. This process is one whereby calm and healthy energy suffuses the entire body and gradually removes the blocks (with their corresponding emotions). 

Without getting too busy, and if things are going well with such practices, you might refine your attention to moving breath energy along a line that proceeds from the forehead over the crown, down through the epiglottis, heart, navel and the end-point of the breathing a little below the navel. These anatomical references are only pointers: the heart area may include the central upper torso between breast-bone and the back. The navel and lower area may widen to include the entire base of the body. Trace sensitively, lingering on any numb or agitated points and let awareness breathe into them. However whatever method you use to fully experience the whole body, when that is fulfilled, awareness becomes very solid and there isn’t room for hindrances to get in. You can even walk around in that fully embodied state. The Buddha commented that ‘when I am in such a state [jhāna] if I walk back and forth, on that occasion my walking is celestial. (A.3:63)

As with a waterproof, stuff rolls off a fully cleared and embodied awareness. But unlike when being in a waterproof, you get to understand what supports hindrances, what releases them, and what it’s like when they’re not there. Because a confused kāyasaṇkhārā results from and aggravates confused mental and ethical perspectives: 'some person generates afflictive kāyasaṇkhārā, afflictive verbal [vaci]saṇkhārā, and afflictive mental [citta]saṇkhārā. In consequence, one is reborn in an afflictive world. When one is reborn in an afflictive world, afflictive contacts touch one. Being touched by afflictive contacts, one feels afflictive feelings, exclusively painful (A.3:23). When you take ‘world’ to mean your daily life context, you get the point.

So you might take on board the suggestion that a reason why you can’t concentrate, and why you feel fidgety and prickly is because your somatic state has become imbalanced. And the cause of that is a conceptually or sensually driven energy and focus. The problem isn’t that you can’t get one-pointed, it’s more a consequence of getting to the wrong point too often. Meditation on other hand begins with arriving at a wholeness that you can get to fairly easily - in your body.

* All quotes from the Pali Canon are taken, with gratitude, from Bhikkhu Bodhi's versions, as published by Wisdom Publications, Somerville MA02144, USA (


Thursday 21 January 2021

Sacred Heart, Sacred Cosmos

A vase of bright flowers sits on my altar, beneath the Buddha-image. It arrived a few days ago through the mail, with no accompanying letter. The flowers and the gesture are message enough. On the other side of my room is a pile of letters and cards; it's a bit of a mess, and I keep meaning to tidy it up. But every time I look into that stack, I read notes sent from here and there and places I've never heard of, let alone visited ... and they offer me a glimpse into other people's lives. They speak of gratitude, of confusion and pain dispelled, or of clarity and inspiration gained as a result of listening to my elaborations on the Buddha's Dhamma, but above all, they share, they impart presence. So it's not easy to dump that in a bin. Today a pair of woollen socks arrived, on another day it was a parcel of tea (and so on): the same response for the same reason. What goes to the heart, brings forth the heart; it's simple and beautiful.  

My response has to be to chant blessings, mantras and protective invocations (parittā). Sometimes there's a name or a face or a collage of impressions that I bear in mind as I chant; a way of inclining that blessing to particular people or events. But even when a thank-you is signed, it serves as a handle to something larger: 'Lee' or 'Suki' are localised living entrances to the great heart. Made poignant by the world-tossed nature of the person through which that heart finds voice, its ability to manifest is timeless and indomitable. And its language is universal. So I chant the blessing in like manner - wherever, to whoever, alive, dead or yet to be born. And I use the ancient tones and phonemes of Pali, a language made sacred by being constructed to carry the Buddha’s teachings - a language that is not mine, and that has poured through the throats and lips of multitudes with the aim to expound the Way of Truth.

With such utterance, meaning isn’t deduced, it enters; chanting is a whole body experience – you feel it. First comes the gathering in the belly, and the swell of the chest and the awakening of the throat; then the soft cavity of the mouth shapes and sends the sound forth as the bones of the head resonate and the pulses in the skin tingle. This is embodied devotion. The listening deepens, comes alive. Sounds, tones and mind spread out within the heart-field of benevolent causes and effects, the 'sacred Cosmos'. Yes, there’s a domain we can evoke and enter –  no visa required, no security checks – and as it supports us, we support it. From its innumerable and mysterious causes and conditions, benevolent influences have come into my life just as they have guided the lives of others; and so awareness must be extended beyond me and time and incident into the domain of love and integrity and self-surrender that is the source of our lived-in truth. We are fragile, we are resilient; we are separated, we're connected. In the language of the heart these are not contradictions. The sense is of embracing the entirety of our humanity. 

To touch into that heart-quality and strengthen it, as crisis after crisis floods our world is at least as necessary as connecting via the phone, walking in green places or doing pilates. Because even giving cursory attention to the current scenario of the violent fragmentation of societies, the desecration of nature and the strangulation of truth gives rise to a kind of vertigo. And as what seemed to be our shared ground shakes, it’s easy to slip into a bleakness where resonance and meaning fall away. But don’t be deceived by circumstance – this has always been possible. We’re on a pilgrimage wherein the gates to that abyss are always open, just as the assault on virtue and value has always been there. In the pre-rational age, its forces were configured as ghouls and demons and yakkhas not as dark networks, corrupt leaders and their slogan-slinging agents. Nowadays political slogans – 'Stop the Steal', 'Take Back Control' - become mantras that repeated time and time again evoke paranoia, division and violence. Thus the dark Cosmos arises. But at any time in measurable history, if you soften the focus on the statistics and the personalities, you become aware of that same field of defilement, evil, and confused and sick hearts – and understand from where and how that dark Cosmos unfolds. It is these roots that we have to suffuse and clean with goodwill, truthfulness, sharing, and selflessness. Whereas minds can state, argue and condemn – and be met by counteractions, legalities and politics – it is only the heart that can suffuse. And there's no counter to that.

The forest ajahns made no mistake in this respect. When out in the wilderness, they would take refuge and chant parittā on a daily basis in order to generate a field of blessed energy within which to dwell. Then conduct themselves in accordance with the rules of that field of virtue and value (aka puñña) through observance of morality, respect of other natural and supernatural creatures, and a turning away from worldly ways. This field of heart energy is a normal, though ignored, aspect of how consciousness works; it is detectable by devices, by people (who may detect the particularly powerful field of a holy person as an aura) and by animals. (See Anna Breytenbach’s work on animal communication .) It may be an aspect of the morphic field that biologist Rupert Sheldrake proposes as holding the intelligence of living creatures. But to get to the point, this offers solid ground.

Tuning into the intelligence of the heart is necessary to make a way through dense forests inhabited by wild animals, spirits and outlaws, without a map: just chant the Metta Sutta, settle in, resolve and follow the attentive heart. On setting up a temporary residence in a cave that could be visited by a bear, cobra or restless spirit, you’d better open to the place, ask permission of any spirit or creature who might frequent it, share merit and establish truthful alignment to the Triple Gem. On meeting outlaws, keep your heart cool and present your virtue.   Above all,  you should know for sure: the Cosmos is multi-faceted with many locales. And only a superficial review would say that dangerous places no longer exist; nowadays they're located on the internet, next to your online shopping page; or in those halls and corridors where power corrupts and eventually buries the heart. To ward off the slide into the defeat that renders aspiration impotent, the advice has to be the same. 

This is how you survive. A fellow-bhikkhu was hospitalised for an extensive period with impaired brain capacity due to blood clots. Memory – the presenter of name, place, and identity – was fragmentary, and would disappear for periods of time. At one time, in one of those ‘out of any world’ episodes, he could feel the confused and dark forces of all the troubled beings who’d sickened in that hospital, or of whatever is attracted to those at death’s door. They were gathered around and pressing in. Fortunately, although he couldn’t remember who or what he was, he did have the parittā established and managed to silently intone them.  As in one of those medieval accounts – maybe they were right?- a bright tone arose and steadily spread through his being until the darkness cleared.  After surviving in heart, his physical condition steadily improved; now he’s back in community. 

So I’m increasing my level of daily recitation – in private. (In the monastery, chanting in public has been whittled down to a breathy murmur as a a Covid precaution). The tip to do so came in the form of a māla, a string of 'prayer beads’, that arrived as a gift from a friend in Wales I’d seen on only a few occasions in the last three decades. An accompanying note recollected a mantra that I’d given her at Amaravati in the 1980s when life was very busy, uncertain and intense. Since that time, she’d suffered from a nerve malfunction that switched off synapses in her limbs for periods of time - virtual paralysis accompanied by intense pain. She and her husband moved to Wales seeking seclusion in order to place their lives more single-mindedly in the Triple Gem. Arthritis set in - her hands were like knotted bamboo. At times she took medication, but to avoid side-effects, that couldn’t be a continual strategy. The core advice from the physician was to never give up. She persevered, struggled, exercised, shared Dhamma with friends, meditated, and chanted. Over the years I visited a few times, eventually noticing to my delight that her hands had slowly regained flexibility, and she could now play the piano, paint, and draw. And some time around the last winter solstice, when darkness is the norm, she made me a māla, carefully threaded the skein of beads - and sent it as a gift. How could I not keep chanting, opening to whatever arises, when this is the field that it connects to?