Sunday 2 January 2022

Sustaining the Network – Questions and Responses in a Pandemic

 (Periodically, the monastery checks its supplies and distributes what isn't immediately needed to those in need, primarily homeless people.)

It’s been a while since I wrote. It’s not that there’s nothing to say, but the number of online sessions I’ve been involved with over the past twenty months have an effect on communication. On top of the quantity of talking I do is the one-way nature of it. Cooped up for nearly two years, I’ve been missing a vital piece – the feedback loop that comes with in-person teaching. Consequently talking seems less important, and writing even less so. 

Anyway, as far ongoing reflections: Yes, we had some Covid outbreaks in the monastery (someone came as a guest without testing) but worked with it and came through; and maybe it’s just another of those things to live and die with. There was a Conference on Climate Change … yes, 'blah, blah, blah'… but at least it’s on the agenda. A big question is:  'What is a world leader anyway?' They current national leadership model doesn’t seem to be able to lead humanity to a safe and benevolent present, let alone a skilful future. It looks more and more like what’s needed is a moral network to counteract the network of money and political power. And yes, the Dhamma network is in this global sense in its comparative infancy, but producing some marvellous statements of the truth of the spirit in the interactive mode. 

So, over the past few years, I’ve been giving attention to supporting that network.  Right now this means responding to the comments and queries I receive through the Dhamma Tracks mail-out that a supporter set up. I only have a superficial understanding of how this mail-out works, but I can review comments. And having read through the first thirty or so, below are the responses that I can make to a few of them.


Someone living with a partner with cancer updates me periodically. They mention visiting the monastery (we’ve remained open to some degree) in the grey weather and receiving welcome and feeling the warmth of the stone of the floor of the meditation Hall as they bowed.

Response: Yes, friend, warm ground, and as direct a contact with it as is possible, is a great support. As an aspect of your body, it’s always here.

There were many comments are expressions of gratitude and love.

Response: Reciprocated. The efforts that people go through to attend a global retreat – getting up in the middle of the night, or staying up through the early hours of the morning to be part of the Dhamma field – are a powerful statement, and it’s a privilege to be part of how that happens.

Others mention benefits of specific practices that integrate body and heart. These include the transformative effects of the meditation on the energy of breathing that I taught in November, also the symbiosis of breath and love that Willa Thaniya and I presented. 

Response: She’s in New Zealand, I’m in the UK, and we didn’t work out what to say in advance. The practice taught itself! This retreat took guidance from the reflection that in most non-mechanist cultures, breath and spirit are synonymous. In the Māori understanding ‘love is the breath of life’: the way that breath moves intimately through us and gently extends our energy field into the environment is one of embodied trust and openness. This is one form of love, just as love, that is the extension of good heart, is that which keeps our spirits alive, shared and fluent. The Vedic tradition that the Buddha arose in gave rise to prāṇayāma the yoga of breathing, whereby the energy that breathing readily accesses can be directed through channels in the body to affect systems that we normally can’t adjust. Such as blood pressure, heartbeat, brain function and metabolism. This ‘prāṇa’ is ‘pāna’ in the Pali language. The Buddha used it primarily as an energy to counteract the reflex compulsions of harmful ‘formations’ (saṅkhārā), which otherwise spin the heart into reactions and compulsive habits. When those reflexes cease, one result is an open, fluent and benevolent heart.



Others mention the power of chanting to purify the mind.

Response: Yes, of course it’s nearly impossible to synchronise chanting online, but I do encourage being mindful of how the body converts breath into sound, and with what effect. This keeps you attuned to the auditory consciousness, which has a wider field than the other consciousness and uses receptivity. (As opposed to the visual consciousness, which is the ‘hunter’ with an attention span like an arrowhead.) Also the heart receives sound effects at a primary imaginal level of heart/mind: this was our way of experiencing in the womb – where the mother’s heartbeat told us we were safe or not. Soon after birth we received the crooning and burbling of the parents to give us reassuring messages. So sound, particularly the sound of the human voice, goes straight to the heart. Therefore, chanting can be used carefully and with clear intention to give beneficial effects to body, heart and mind.


There was a comment on attuning to the ‘field of puñña’, as an antidote to the dull and deadening forces of materialism.

Response: Puñña, ‘goodness’, ‘value’ or ‘merit’ is the richness of heart that arises dependent on intentions and actions associated with goodwill and virtue. Acting in terms of puñña establishes skilful paths for the heart to move down; and the effects in the long-term build spiritual resources and repair the damage of indulgence, guilt, and aversion (to name a few). Although the notion can be dismissed as ‘spiritual materialism’ = ‘give donation, get a fortunate rebirth’, there is an effect that comes not through mechanically applied religious conventions but through attuning and extending the heart to the felt energies associated with goodness. Once you give attention, not so much to the thought, but to the embodied and emotional shift that comes with compassion or truthfulness (for example), you’ll get the point. And you’ll notice by comparison the dulling affect that consumer-driven materialism brings, no matter how sleek the packaging. This is the hinge point of renunciation, and it leads to an instinctive turning away from worldly values.

The commentator also mentioned how sensing the field of puñña overcomes the sense of distance.

Response: Yes, what is ‘distance’ as a felt experience? Isn’t it a mood, an emotional boundary, a sense of separation? And while one can feel separated from people living in the same street, one can feel connected to others at a geographical distance. This is because the citta doesn’t operate in terms of space or time, but in terms of its own energies - contracted or unrestricted, tangled or clear. Accessing the field of puñña, one accesses clear and increasingly unrestricted energies – the ‘measureless mind’ of the brahmavihāra is an example of this. In this way, the sense of restriction and isolation ceases.


There was a comment on the benefits of ‘Learning from the Pause’, the blog post of October 2021.

Response: The pause phase of breathing – that is the moments where the exhalation subsides before the inhalation picks up, and vice versa – are essential moderators of the breathing and consequently the nervous system and the mind. Once you get this, you see the relevance of pausing between impact and response, between hearing someone and replying to them, or acting on what you’ve heard – particularly if the impact is evocative. And this is of course, what people by and large don’t do!


Here are responses to a few questions:

Q: A question about managing anxiety.

A: An awareness of the precarious nature of conditioned existence is natural. To live without that is to be dangerously deluded. However, the healthy system is able to stay alert without activating anxiety – which actually biases and impairs its clarity. I recommend a mindful immersion in the body, an awareness of its nervous energy. If this is carried out and awareness extended to cover the entire body, the nervous system will be able to self-regulate, that is, to moderate alertness, and to discharge any hyper-effects. Anxiety contracts the heart as a defence, but it locks the nervous system so that it can’t relax.  So to release anxiety, first put aside any anxiety-forming topics and widen your visual awareness, allowing your seeing and hearing to rove freely, but steadily and calmly. Increasingly extend your attention to encompass the entire body as it stands, making sure you include the soles of the feet. This establishes the ‘upright axis’, a firm centre that extends vertically through the body, and as you sense that, your other senses may settle down to a greater degree.  Then extend your awareness to the perimeter of the body and a little into the space immediately around, above and below. This is the ‘natural’ setting for embodied awareness; it provides a safe envelope around the physical form, and as it isn’t contracted, the heart is at ease.

As you cultivate the less restricted state, allow yourself to enter slightly uncertain territory and cultivate this grounded and safely open state as you move around.


Q: What is the connection or balance between effort, inquiry (yoniso manisikara is the pali term I think) and listening (sati sampajanya is the pali term I think)?

A: All translations are debatable, but yoniso manasikāra is generally understood to be deep or penetrative attention. It is a careful adjustment of attention that directs it to pertinent themes. Sampajañña is the wise knowing that arises from sati, mindfulness. They’re similar, but deep attention helps to set up mindfulness, and can use thinking, whereas sampajañña is an alert attunement to the changing nature of phenomena, how they arise and how they cease.


Q: How to welcome conditioned phenomena totally? The mind feels mistrustful. Hence there is a loss of direction, and a sense of insecurity.

A: Welcoming conditioned phenomena totally is a very high standard. Start with being aware of mistrust and insecurity and stop believing in them or trying to overcome them. These senses have their causes and conditions and need to be heard. Ask in a contemplative way:  ‘How does this feel?’ ‘Can I be with that?’ ‘Can I sense how that affects my body? Is there any part of my body that isn’t affected by these?’ When you have established a respectful relationship with these moods, they might subside. And you might also ask ‘What are these trying to do? Where do they want to go? Can I be with them and explore them in a sympathetic way?’


Well, that's about it for now. I'm trying to spend less time in front of a screen, but I expect to comment from time to time. Meanwhile there's the ongoing practice of sustaining the Dhamma field by digging in and nourishing the heart.  Please stay tuned to the field!