Thursday 8 June 2023

Where Are You Going?

This is a section of a map of the London Underground rail network. It will show you how to get from Notting Hill Gate to Holborn along straight lines (with two easy bends) without hindrance. Of course, it’s a fantasy. The actual rail line snakes through the mud, shale and rock underneath the city. But even if you expected to walk between those two points along unobstructed straight streets, you’d be disappointed. The city is a multi-layered tangle of physical constructions that support and shape the centuries’-long process of human interactions; there are no straight lines. But it’s a useful map – millions of people use it to transit through the city every year. They don’t need to know what’s happening on the surface and what they are travelling through; such realities serve no purpose. Instead, attention can be given to the phone or the newspaper or one’s private thoughts as the train rattles on. These apparently do have purpose.

Our life on the social web is full of maps. And they define us: take national ones ... government and the psychology of the state profoundly shape our outlook and possibilities. Yet boundaries, governments and psychologies change, states die – Yugoslavia, Savoy, Gandhara, Assyria – and new states spring up – Moldova, Israel, South Sudan. People move around: someone born in Hong Kong may emigrate to Toronto, and become as Canadian as an Inuit woman … but what kind of cultural reality do they share? On a more domestic level, we use time maps called ‘calendars’ in which every day is offered any equal amount of space and consists of hours that all have their own box, defined by straight lines. This is totally unlike lived-in time … which can be dense, speedy, tangled or open. Then there is the occupation map, the ‘To-Do’ list that will neatly configure your duties and spur you into action. No day then need be unconfigured; there’s always some bleeping reminder nudging you through a maze of tasks, promises, and interactions.  Thus we become our occupations. Life itself is mapped in decades: you’re thirty – how about your job, relationships, babies? You’re forty – there’s the pressure of managing a career and a burgeoning family. By fifty you’re in midlife crisis, so that in the succeeding years you should be planning for retirement … health insurance plans ... and what you will leave behind? Where did that map take you to?

Notice how conventional maps just lead you to another point on the map ... and on … and on. And then you die without having arrived at anywhere that settled or conclusive. Their notions of where we are, what we have to do and what we belong to, are as different from your directly felt reality as the map of the Underground is from the mud and shale and street-life of London. Do you feel you can’t keep up? That you’re failing? ‘Samsāra’ , it’s called. Could it be that the disembodied reality and the samsāric pressure that those maps create affects mental health? So it becomes important to realise who are you – apart from the map that you first create and are then created by.

Meditation (or more accurately cultivation (bhavanā) of ‘heart’/citta) has the potential to take you to a true real-life centre. However, meditation techniques may well present maps of stages and a to-do list of duties that are to be undertaken in order to make that progress; and some destinations on that map are held to be a long way off in a journey that may extend for lifetimes. Knowing the nature of maps, a good question to ask then is, ‘Is there a journey? If so, from where to where?’  

Feeling a need to inquire into the nature of the journeys, and even of there being a map, it's worthwhile exploring where we’re going – and how. Inquiry is part of cultivation. How then to meditate? You might get the idea of holding your mind on to some point on your body ... it brings you into the present; the act of focusing is an important part of cultivation. However, attention alone is not going to get you out of samsāra.  Attention is an action that has results, but it’s such a constant one that we barely acknowledge it as such, let alone make a clear decision about that action and how to place it. Where then does that action begin? Attention normally arises with respect to a sense-field. For example, when seeing, the eyes present a visual field, and because of interest to discern an object there’s a focus on a detail. That’s attention (manasikāra): it’s not created by the eyes, but by the mind, or the mind’s interest. With that act of attention most of the field fades into the background and is ignored, and the focus holds 5% or less of the field and absorbs what occurs in that; if the interest firms up, and becomes decisive, there is a further refinement of focus.

This narrowing and restriction of input provides the basis for what we experience. It is an extremely significant act, but it doesn't present an unbiased reality. Architects notice design, burglars notice windows, doors and locks, real-estate agents notice neighbourhoods, traffic, access to shops and services… so what is a house? How would a dog see it? There is a subjective bias that accompanies attention, and that affects what you see (hear, taste, etc.).  That is, attention is accompanied by subjectively-tinted interest and a biased receptivity and these together formulate the experience of distinct object arising within a wider field. Furthermore, as with advertising, politics or media in general, the object itself may be loaded with details to incline the mind one way or another. In any case based on the formulated and tinted object, feeling and intention/motivation arise. As the Buddha commented ‘whatever one repeatedly gives attention to becomes the inclination of one’s mind’(M.19). So here is instant kamma: the act of attending does more than select an object, the whole process shapes you; it creates phenomena and immerses you in their reality, just as other maps do. ‘With the arising of attention there is the arising of phenomena.’ (S.47.42) Attention, interests and biases therefore need to be managed with care. Can you focus on these?

To do this, we have to turn towards another factor: awareness. Awareness (ñāña) is the receptivity of consciousness (viññāna), the openness to receive data. It is based in the ‘heart’ (citta) – whose receptivity is attuned to the input of the sense-fields, or more exactly to the field of the body and the mind (manas) – which maps and shapes phenomena out of the other senses. So whatever attention has shaped up into a perception contacts the citta, gives rise to disagreeable or pleasurable feeling, and hence, intention/ motivation/ desire arises.  And then the reactive dance around the senses starts. Now what if one deliberately restrained the process of attention so that objects didn’t jump up with their sharp outlines …? This means that instead of getting input from the 5% of a sense-field, you tune in to entire field of the mind. Then your awareness would more fully sense the nature of the interest or intention that was directing the attention. This kind of focus lessens the sharpness of the object definition, but it makes the quality of intention apparent. And by not being absorbed on a detail, you notice the signal that conditions attention in the first place. In other words, you become aware of what interests and motivates you, for good or for bad.  This is called 'deep' or 'careful' attention (yoniso manasikāra): it's not so much about what something is, but what it does to you.

So this is not about attending to a point. In fact, the Buddha’s teaching on cultivation doesn’t suggest that. Instead, you’re starting place is with intention rather than attention – and which your mindfulness covers: ‘When your virtue is well purified and your view straight, based upon virtue, established upon virtue, you should develop the four establishments of mindfulness … internally and externally ….’ (S.47:3; cf. S.47:15; S.47:47) This means there is an awareness based on noticing cause and effect, and that can track the source, effect and destination of phenomena in terms of the internal and external fields of body and mind. ‘Internal’ and ‘external’ refer to the body’s sense of what is within it (its somatic energies) and around it (the sense-world), and to the mind’s establishment of a location internally (its state) and externally (the psychological world).  As you keep tuned in to these fields, you’ll recognise where intentions take you – to benevolent or afflicted places in your heart and body –  and discover that ‘intention’ is not just an idea, it’s a saṅkhāra, an energy that runs through your nervous system. Notice how joy tends to send a brightening energy to the face and chest, fear cramps the abdomen and rage hardens the face and other soft tissues. This is a pivotal insight. 

The Buddha-to–be gave an account of investigating three sankhāra in particular that obstructed balance and liberation – ones that supported purposes based on sensuality, cruelty and brutality. Realising that these tracks led to harm for himself and others, he cultivated putting them aside and establishing right purpose (samma-sankappa) – that is non-sensuality, non-cruelty, and harmlessness; a matter of undoing. (see M.19).

Considering the obsessive nature of our thoughts and moods, we might well wonder how he 'did' undoing. My suggestion is that you can’t just cut out unskilful thoughts and drives by willpower alone; it takes cultivation. And as the Buddha’s main theme of cultivation was mindfulness of breathing, it seems to me that this process is the key.  Reviewing the instructions he gave (M.118), you’ll notice that they mention being aware of the entire body when breathing in/out; acknowledging the somatic/internal bodily energies when breathing in/out, and soothing those energies. Basically, you’re uprooting unskilful energetic pathways.  Even more profoundly, through fully comprehending the effect of tracing and releasing the bodily saṅkhāra, there can be the release of the heart, the ending of suffering and stress. This is the main track to getting off the map, the final destination of cultivation.

It is by keeping these fields open and mindfully cultivated, that a meditator can continue their practice ‘off the cushion’ in daily life. Actually, it’s more a matter of bringing your daily life training into the internal domain and taking it deeper – so the citta is steadied and able to notice the effect of any intention and attention. Whereas focusing on a predetermined point will tend to restrict awareness of energy, if one’s awareness is attuned to the entire field of the inner body it will be alert to the saṅkhārā that formulate the drives and reflexes of the heart. 

This process-path of investigating and purifying purpose/intention consists of uprooting energies and attitudes that contaminate our society and devastate our planet. It erases the divide between ‘internal’/‘on the cushion’/meditation and ‘external’/‘make a living’/occupation. It’s transformational because people suffer not so much from deliberate bad intention, but from not developing deep purpose. Life can be a matter of bouncing off what is thrown at you or trying to stay afloat in what you’re dumped in. But there is a track that can be followed that leads out of this; it is a line well worth following. So can we live with our minds and hearts aimed at a process of sustainable living rather than being tethered to the virtual realities of time and identity? Are you ready and interested to travel through your own intimate life? How can do that except with a rightly trained heart?