Saturday, 30 November 2013

Empty Chairs

I’ve been teaching a retreat at the Forest Refuge in Massachusetts. One day Joseph Goldstein came round to say hello. This often happens when I visit the Barre centres; we don’t meet regularly or for any great length of time, but we’ve been having a conversation for the past twenty years, often circling around duties and responsibilities. Joseph is a foundational figure in the Western Dhamma scene, and I have a lot of respect for his commitment; and for how his generosity in sharing his understanding is balanced by an ability to keep his own contemplative practice well-nourished. He just doesn’t seem to do much else except Dhamma. But now, touching seventy, he’s reflecting on reducing his output and passing on the responsibility and leadership. The question is: to whom?

It’s a pertinent question and one that we’re talking about because we’re in the same boat; along with a cluster of other Dhamma-teachers and abbots. Last year I informed the Sangha that I would be putting aside my abbot’s duties after my sixty-fifth birthday in late 2014. Over the past year I’ve been carefully wording as best I could what I have in mind. It’s not that I have any new projects or visions to pursue, but that having supervised monasteries and communities for over twenty-five years, enough is enough. It feels that my mind and heart has met, been challenged, worked over, and strengthened by all that it takes to hold community – particularly as people’s normal inclination is to operate as individuals. I may very well have done some good things. It’s gladdening to feel that standards have been established, buildings built, and teachings offered that some have found helpful. What feels equally important is that I haven’t given up on the intention to be free and happy. In fact those liberations have become more available through a lot of giving myself and giving up that any duties require. But as I’ve noted in every other teacher that I know, as their awakening process continues through ageing, it returns to home base. They move to the edge of the community and out of management.

So my sense is to take away all the multi-tasking of abbotship and see what remains: Dhamma-practice – yes; living in accordance with Vinaya – yes; sharing what I know with others – I would expect so. The details remain unclear because I haven’t arrived at the place of putting aside yet; I can’t judge, and refuse to speculate, as to what is on the other side of the door until I’ve opened it and walked through. It’s a kind of dying, but that’s life. Livelihood may require plans, but life is to be listened to as it happens. See where it goes. I’m sure I’ll find out. Anyway, as with Luang Por Sumedho and Joseph and quite a few others, a generation is moving on to where all generations go. Who fills the space?

The short answer is: no-one can. In my case, no-one is even trying; it’s likely that my duties will get shared out amongst a number of other samanas. Maybe the position of abbot will 
come up for review: if very few feel able or interested in doing it, maybe monasteries will have to operate in a different way (perhaps more like Dhamma centres, with a board of Guiding Teachers). My trust is that if the position of leader/abbot is valid, then somehow the need for it will find someone. But, to broaden the topic, being irreplaceable isn’t something that’s so special about me; in fact no-one can replace anyone else. No one could replace my father, or mother, for me anyway. We’re all one-offs.

What is apparent is that we become something in other people’s minds. And when one appears in a particular way, as a teacher or a leader, then that image builds up a consistency 
and a power. In the case of celebrities in the world of entertainment, the role that they were 
enacting pursues them relentlessly past the time when they left the show. In the case of great spiritual teachers like Ajahn Chah, the image has its good effects in providing people with an icon that supports their faith. And the icon endures. In fact, due to the power of the teachings and anecdotes around him, Ajahn Chah has gained many, many more disciples since he passed away than during his lifetime. And different people have slightly different Ajahn Chahs in their hearts.

My memory of the ‘real’ person was that he was able to switch off his personality as easily as taking out his dentures when he didn’t need them. Or change it to suit the occasion. An ex-monk who spent time with Ajahn Chah recounted to me an occasion when Ajahn Chah had been giving a Dhamma talk to a congregation, in his characteristically vigorous and charismatic way, and then got off the teacher’s seat to leave. In a room in back of the teaching hall a Western monk had collapsed in some faint, fit or seizure, and a few others (including my friend) were clustering around him. Suddenly my friend noticed a small Thai monk gently weaving his way between the large Westerners. At first glance, my friend didn’t recognize him, but to his surprise, when the monk got to the front of the throng, it turned out to be Ajahn Chah, who then got on with attending to the sick monk. He had become nobody special and hands-on as suited the occasion.

To me it’s always been part of the training that when one gets on the teaching seat, one should really get on it. No apologies, no personal dramas, no notes: just express the Dhamma as one is experiencing it. What is useful will endure. Respect people’s attention, and then when you’ve finished, make sure you get off the seat and leave it behind. No claiming authority, no autographs, no revisions and regrets. It’s a good practice that is relevant to any position: fill it, then leave it behind. In fact this is how to do life – pour your imperfect self into it with integrity, bear with the embarrassments, the glitches, the projections and positions, learn what needs to be learned, then move on. In this way you meet and come to terms with being someone, and then let that someone dissolve; you drain the form of selfhood – which we took on with birth – of the view ‘I am this’ and ‘I am other than this.’ This is the emptying that supports good in this world as well as inner release.

Whatever samanas and brahmins have said that freedom from being something comes about through some state of existence, none of them, I say, are free from the tendency to identify. And whatever samanas and brahmins have said that escape from being something comes about through avoiding existence, none of them, I say, have escaped from the tendency to identify. This dukkha arises dependent on holding on. When you let go, there is no more suffering. (Udana 3.10)

There’s something about chairs that creates us, and in more ways than posture. It’s about occupying a position where the inner and outer presentations of our awareness come into play. This is where we meet what we sense is out there in the external world, where ‘me’ and ‘them’ have to be understood. But how else can we get the nervousness and posturing of ‘self and other’ exposed and released? All public chairs are electric, because in them you’re meeting your own implacable shadows. Until you embrace and resolve them. Then you get to understand that all chairs are always empty – even when you’re sitting in one.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Spiritual Work is Play

Occasionally I sketch. Sketching was something I used to do even in my early years as a bhikkhu. It took me out of the linear narrative of ideas that always raced onwards to arrive at no sure conclusion. And it opened up a way of more fully sensing and appreciating the ordinary. It was enjoyable, and got the mind to give up its preoccupations and be tethered to the movement of the hand. The sketches weren’t and aren’t attempts at high art, but through encouraging receptivity rather than self-importance, they serve a purpose. Held with attention, this empty ink-bottle still says something: schooldays; hand-writing that was always as unique as it was personal and untidy; life as the unfinished and the openness to learn. And its empty ‘uselessness’ ­reminds me to stay light rather than full.

It is an observable fact that all of the higher forms of life participate in activities that aren’t functional – especially, but not exclusively, when they are young.  We call such activities ‘play’. True play (rather than manufactured entertainment) isn’t frivolous; although one of its primary results is enjoyment, it’s about learning. Predators play at hunting, and prey chase after each other, to best equip themselves with life-skills. Children used to play a lot, especially after child-labour became less common. It offered an opportunity for young people to find themselves by entering the community of other youngsters, unsupervised by adults. In the human sphere, play is the activity that educates the young, and re-educates the adult in terms of engagement and cooperation. By the challenges that it presents, whether they be physical (as in sport) or mental (as in games), play encourages an imagination, and the willingness to take risks and be tested. Unlike synthetic entertainment, TV, computer games, etc. such play engages us in the world of human interaction. Then what was played out through mock-threat, cunning or anger, explores and integrates these energies in the real world. Playing anger for example, gets the player to know how to maintain personal boundaries and resist pressure.  This is useful in accessing and handling emotions and roles: if you can play anger, or play the wicked tyrant, you’re less likely to blow up with these energies when they’re triggered in real life. But if these energies don't get integrated, they will manifest in terms of fantasies, obsessions and sociopathic behaviour. If a boy doesn’t have play battles, the chances are that a few years later he takes an assault rifle into the classroom.  So learning by inner exploration is important; and through play children learn to find their interiors, to deepen, empathize and integrate. Learning to be fully human isn’t a trivial matter.

However, a recent paper ( Peter Gray suggests that play has been in decline for a couple of generations. And he notes that since the 1960s (when playtime progressively gave way to homework and adult-directed sports) childhood mental disorders began increasing – to the level where anxiety and depression are now five to eight times greater among children than they were in the 1950s. Suicide rates for the age group fifteen to twenty-four has doubled; it has quadrupled amongst those under age fifteen. Also, when schooling fosters competition rather than cooperation, empathy declines and narcissistic self-interest grows. And if the overriding aim is to prepare children for life as exterior (= work, material resources), but not life as interior (empathy, full present awareness and balance), people learn what they’re supposed to do and have, but not how to be.

The mistake is to confuse livelihood for life and skip the development of consciousness (aka ‘interior’ – the subjective experience of being fully with what's happening.) Consequently, as the appreciative depth of awareness is exchanged for touchscreen gratification, enjoyment becomes a shallow gratification that is bound to an exterior and fleeting world. There is a divorce of interiors ( = subjective experiences which feel essentially ‘me’) from exteriors (= function, sense-contact, object-orientation). So the interior becomes dysfunctional and dark, losing flow and balance, and the exterior becomes flat and meaningless.

Healthy activity should bring the two together – so that we live a meaningful life in the world of others ‘out there’. However if our lives are prioritized in terms of achievements or possessions, they lose play and become work. The work ethic prioritizes end-result: an activity is made worthwhile if it produces something external such as money, praise, or promotion. Work is impersonal and involves as few subjective qualities as possible, so the worker’s mood doesn’t affect the job, and the worker can be replaced. In fact, work is best done by a reliable machine. When an occupation blends ‘external’ work with ‘internal’ play – such as sharing a project with colleagues, or prioritizing personal experimentation and ingenuity over time-boundaries, it is an enjoyable craft.  But when it doesn’t, it causes a loss of personal meaning and value for the worker. This is because, whether we’re factory-workers, surgeons or journalists, we’re humans with interiors that need to be engaged. We need to be fully and imaginatively conscious in order to enjoy. And enjoyment is a psychological need. We may imagine that through paying the bills and getting a few nice accessories to our lives we will arrive at satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment, but fullness, enjoyment and contentment are aspects of our interior. So we can't get there through exterior value, no matter what the reward. As one friend commented on his retirement, the 'golden sunset' isn't there.  We should have known: if the day’s activities leave us feeling exhausted and empty so that we need synthetic entertainment; if our daily actions don’t connect to and endorse our intrinsic worth – then what are the chances of such activities doing so at the end of a working life? It’s play, not work, that gives our lives their deepest satisfaction.

So reconsider play as the non-linear approach, an intention to meet, open to, and respond to what arises in the moment. Sounds like Dhamma practice? I hope so. This is because whereas work just brings forth willpower and ratiocination, play calls up the full range of mind – reason, yes, but also the detached perspective ( ‘this is just play’) that gives scope for imagination and self-inquiry ( ‘how am I being affected by this, how do I stay balanced?’). Play brings forth creative energy, the experience of flow. Play is enjoyment that needs no end-product.  Play enriches us because it reveals aspects of our interior that work can't. Therefore, because of the fullness of mind that it demands, play has always been a gateway to the sacred.

In religious cultures, the play element manifests as art, architecture, literature, and song. Even sober Theravada has its chanting and rituals that you participate in as a community rather then observe; sacred play that brings forth the ability to put aside self-image and then merge in the Deathless. In this way, spiritual play is a profound resource: when an exterior form mirrors an interior meaning, it generates vigour and uplift and steers the intention. Play matures into spiritual craft.

In the field of Dhamma practice, meditation is the aspect that is specifically about deepening our interior – although in external terms it doesn’t look like doing more than just sitting there. But even with that, just disengaging from externally-oriented activity opens you to your interior; and the more skilful your actions are in that domain, the more you learn. At first the interior seems to be just thoughts (‘in my head’) and emotions (‘in my heart’) but through meditation, mental awareness can deepen beyond these to finer and more profound levels where the familiar monologues, attitudes and reactions of self fade out. The interior is then revealed as a multi-layered domain, containing memories, attitudes and energies – in the same way as the sea may have bands of cool water or tides running through it. Even more of a revelation is that the interior goes beyond all content. It has a boundless, still capacity that touches us with peace and contentment. As with the ink-bottle, emptiness is fuller than the full.

As it is about the interior, it makes sense that meditation should be more akin to play than work. That is, the interior is deepened through a subjective, felt and creative process. It’s less about goal-orientation, aim and achievement, and more about fully sensing and discerning what is in line with one’s present-moment harmony. In this way adopting the play ethic modifies how we meditate: we contemplate what arises in awareness with the fullness of mind (aka mindfulness) rather than just noting it. Yet with the notion that meditation is an important activity, our work ethic can move in and demand wilful goal-orientation and progress. And once that mind-set kicks in, awareness loses sensitivity, responsive strength and present-moment enjoyment. Meditation becomes another work project that divorces us from our interior. To say that meditation isn’t an activity would confine it to something best undertaken by vegetables, but to limit action to the work ethic is to both create an obstacle and lessen one’s capacities at the same time.  Meditation is something you have to play, often by ear.

The Buddhist perspective on action (or kamma) expands the significance of work and play. Any activity has to come from an intention, but in many cases the intention is only half-conscious. People go on automatic, react, or act on hasty assumptions. Yet, all this is kamma, and it creates a result. One result, for good or bad, is the laying down of reflex actions and psychological programs called saṇkhārā – variously translated as ‘activities’ or ‘formations’. They’re both: as these activities (or more accurately reactivities) become familiar, they become who I am, and ‘my way’ – they form a self. For example, through constantly running a victim program, or an entitlement program, or an indebted ‘got to work’ program we form ourselves as victims, or someone who as the right to have what he/she wants, or the one who has to keep working to justify their existence. And so on. There is a fixated and fixing quality about these programs; they run on auto-pilot and they give us a clear self-image. So saṇkhārā are of central importance to the topic of liberation. They’re not always based on our external actions: we also get programmed to internally act dependent on how others behave and misbehave towards us.  The ‘activity that becomes a formation’ then is our half-conscious rerunning of programs such as ‘not-good enough’, ‘have to do all the work to be accepted’, ‘only worthy if I get results’. What may have been triggered by the social exterior becomes an interior activity and forms our self-image. If not carefully contemplated and resolved, these saṇkhārā can become programs that lasts a lifetime – and beyond. There is no self or consciousness that undergoes rebirth: but saṇkhārā carry the message from life to life.

Their basic message is: there’s something better that you could be if you keep doing (something) and moving onwards (somewhere). We follow this, but only find that whatever we do, it doesn't quite work (so try harder!); and wherever we get to, there’s somewhere better, a little further down the track. This is what is meant by saṁsara, and is why the Buddha used the word ‘nibbāna’ to describe our highest welfare. Like many of the Buddha’s references the word ‘nibbāna’ is suggestive and metaphorical rather than literal. Related to a background image of fire, it means ‘blown out’; nibbāna is the extinguishing of deadening activities.

To bring this about takes activity, but for liberation play is the truest way to work. The Buddha’s creative use of metaphors and similes suggests that spiritual practice requires an awareness that is attuned to images and to how things strike the mind.  Rather than give a lot of technical instruction, the Buddha likens the attention required in meditation to holding a bird (M.103.22) ­– if you grip it too tightly, you crush and kill it; if you’re not firm enough it flies away. Got it? And what about concentration: the Buddha describes the first level of absorption to be like someone mixing bathpowder and water and then working it through the body (M.119.18 ). Don’t tighten up and don’t space out: keep working ease into the tissues. On the negative side, the mind obsessed with sense pleasure is like a leper who derives fleeting gratification from cauterizing his sores (M.75.17). On the other hand skillfully working the mind renders it pure and malleable as fine gold, ready to form any kind of ornament (A.5.23). My advice is to dwell on the images and take them in; the imaginative instructs you at a deep level.

In meditation, the play is to meet what arises in the mind. First meet it and include it whether you like it or should be experiencing it or not. While stepping back, be curious, be more fully conscious. How is this anger, how does it feel? How am I with it? What’s it like when I don’t stiffen against it, lecture it? What’s it like when I don’t believe in the stories it tells me about them and me and how it should be, but distill all that down to one reference point: anger, simmering, burning? Can I see it as a trapped energy that needs some generous handling? Visualise it – what does it look like? Above all prioritize present engagement, feel it in your body, breathe into it. Abandon the idea of getting through it, or that you should be some other way. Then, when I’m not superior or inferior to my anger; when I am neither denying not justifying it – then I’m not overwhelmed and the anger is held with mindfulness. Deprived of further food, it reconnects to bodily vitality. So the mind becomes calm and bright. And something deep has been learned about sankhārā: they’re triggered rather than fixed and personal, they can switch off – and when they do you feel all the richer for it.

You also get to know the tools and mode of Dhamma-as-craft.  Keep your wits about you, learn to get grounded yet flexible through imagining the textures of your body as earth, fire, air and water.  Assess what’s going on through sensing how it feels. Relax into presence: what would it be like to be welcome, to have all the time in the world. Bring up your strengths: how is it when you imagine tethering the passions and pulls of the mind like fastening wild animals to a stake until they lie down. These are the means that the Buddha encouraged. So enjoy the challenge; he was here too. And when things settle down, learn to really enjoy that and drink it in.

Furthermore, you learn the rules of interiors. You can formulate your own, but for me the first rule may be: you can’t fix the surface except by deepening. In other words, thinking – the most superficial aspect of the interior (it’s the exterior aspect of mind)– can’t resolve its own narratives and obsessions.  It can't deal with emotions. You can’t think yourself out of jealous thoughts, guilt or worthlessness. You have to penetrate the web of thought and enter the felt senses of need or fear or sadness that they stem from. And you enter the felt sense when you’re receptive, flexible and responsive.

Another rule may be: you can’t release/let go of saṇkhārā by being superior or inferior to them. Trying to be above your compulsions and fears, or assuming you are burdened by greed and anxiety, will always lessen your capacity to meet these as energies. When you play with demons, you have to give them respect but hold your ground. And finally: the surest result is not measured in terms of content, but of capacity.  Rather than expecting to be on top all the time, we discover the capacity to receive conflict, and the world in general, without getting fazed. In this very capacity, rather than in a transitory mind-state, is the unshakeable deliverance.  Like an empty ink-bottle – ordinary, just there, and at first glance nothing useful at all.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Good, The Bad, And The Clear

During this season, that of the three-months ‘Rains Retreat’ (Vassa), we study the Vinaya at Cittaviveka. Vinaya is the section of the Buddha’s teachings that often gets overlooked in Dhamma circles – it gives instructions on the samana’s (i.e. a monk or nun) way of life. But is it just for monks and nuns? Well, the Buddha felt, quite reasonably, that he could only lay down a detailed training for those who went forth under him and had no other commitments. So in a way this is true. But the nature of the Vinaya is that by supervising how the samana community behaves in relationship to the lay community, its effects are felt by all, and it offers occasions for lay people to compose and collect their energies around the (ideal) quietness and simplicity of a well-trained samana. In brief, by setting up a relationship of alms-mendicancy – the samanas can’t have or use money, can’t grow or store food, can’t manipulate what people should offer – Vinaya establishes the Dhamma-culture of generosity/sharing, virtue/integrity and renunciation/simplicity. These overarching norms can then transfer into the society at large, dependent on the skill and energy of the lay community.

At this time especially, I think that it is only through adopting and practising these norms that human beings will be able to navigate out of the consumer and credit-based economy that is exhausting this planet. We have to live with less waste, and we can best do this if we share resources. Sharing/generosity becomes natural when you trust people, and you can only really trust people of integrity. If you have integrity, you value the life that has been given to all creatures and you don’t want to contribute to the abuse and pollution of the planet. In support of this, renunciation lowers the consumption of commodities and hence the exploitation of the Earth’s resources – and reducing consumption becomes practical when people are prepared to share what they have.  Meanwhile, renunciation is no great sacrifice when one feels enriched by one’s own heart-mind (the only innate resource that humans have): and that’s what Dhamma practice is about. So in this culture, Dhamma feeds the heart and Vinaya builds the structures.

So although the Vinaya topic is ethics, it broadens that concept. For example, a samana is only allowed one set of robes (renunciation); cannot recommend killing, even euthanasia (value of life); and is enjoined to share the very food he/she has received today with fellow-samanas (sharing). Then there are observances – such as the Vassa itself – that greatly outnumber what would be regarded as ‘morality’. For example, by requiring samanas to stay in one place for at least three months of the year, Vinaya observance catalyzes the sense of community: the local villagers will naturally come round and check the samanas out; they’ll look to them for teachings and examples – and so that will support their own practice and be conducive to them offering food on a regular basis. Another observance establishes a relationship of respect dependent on how long one has been in the Order: and that curtails jockeying for position – the senior is not necessarily the most-attained, or the most gifted, just more long-standing. As a counterbalance, seniority by itself doesn’t bring authority: the Sangha is administered by elected officers. Moreover a newcomer picks which teacher he/she would like to study under and to whom he/she will offer allegiance and service. 

A lot of Vinaya is just about deportment: ‘I shall go with downcast/moderated gaze in public places’; ‘I shall go with little sound in public places’; ‘I shall go well-covered [with robes] in public places.’ The effect of this training is both personal – it keeps you mindful within your body and not drawn out into sights and shops – and public – a bhikkhu walking in a quiet and composed way can change the energy of a street. I remember one occasion (of several similar) when travelling: sitting down to wait for a flight in an airport, I tucked my legs up in lotus position on the seat to pass the time in meditation. Just before I closed my eyes, I noticed a woman sitting in a seat a little way away and facing mine: she was leafing through a magazine. When I opened my eyes a half-hour later, I noticed that now she too was sitting cross-legged with eyes closed.

These and many, many, others make up the ‘samana norm’, a living presentation of the Way that the Buddha felt was a vital aspect of his teaching. So much so, that he said that in the case of previous Awakened Ones who hadn’t laid down a training, their teaching had died out shortly after their own deaths. And yet … he refused to lay down any rules until a need arose. Every rule is built around an occasion when someone lost touch with a norm that the Buddha felt was natural for a ‘gone-forth’ person, or an instance where lay people were upset by the conduct of a samana. So Vinaya came around through direct experience; it wasn’t laid out as a system, it doesn’t lead out to abstract principles, but was built up with rulings adjusted by exemption clauses and moderating circumstances throughout the Buddha’s life. And after …? He thought of that too, and established the ‘great standards’ for future guidance. These state that if something occurs or is available now that wasn’t around at the time of the Buddha – the Sangha has to decide whether that is like, or has the same effect as, something that the Buddha allowed, or forbade, and act accordingly.  So Vinaya has to be kept alive by the wise integrity of the Sangha, and if the Sangha declines in that, then the Vinaya declines – and vice versa.  Well, one could say a lot about that decline, but not now.

Instead, I’d like to reflect around the abstraction of the ethical sense into Good and Evil; and as a  contrast, the awareness of present intention that is the norm for awakening.  Good and Evil are the most fundamental abstractions, going right back to Adam and Eve. The serpent is bound up with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and presents its forbidden fruit to Eve. Then God shows up and the judgements begin. As a child I could never understand why knowing the difference between Good and Evil would get you thrown out of Eden. But I think I get it now. When you define human behaviour in terms of abstract principles, you lose the direct awareness of what’s happening now, and of your intention – the most common moderating factor in the Vinaya. Without that clear awareness what you are left with is ideals and judgements. And so the judging God arises. And He can do what He likes to you (witness Job). To return from the mythic to the psychological: this abstraction means that assessment is removed from your own intelligence and given to a remote and inscrutable entity, or your own Inner Tyrant. Obedience is obligatory.

The immediate effect of replacing your own direct awareness with passive obedience is to empower fear and guilt, and allow a dumbing-down of your moral intelligence. You never really understand why some actions are good or bad; in fact sometimes it’s not even actions that are good or bad – it’s people. My tribe, unsurprisingly, are the Good. If you belong to the Good then, like God, you can do whatever you like to the Evil Ones. Hence the security forces of the Free World can hijack, assassinate, deal in drugs, and imprison without trial. Nor is this just a present-day phenomenon: Khmer Rouge, Nazis, colonial powers, medieval kings, the Papacy, the jihad – wherever the good, the pure or the holy is abstracted it offers ideological conviction, or a mystic empowerment and a God-given right. Then it is appropriated by a group, an organisation or a political entity and is used to justify their actions. The polarization of the Good creates the Evil Ones – who you can’t trust an inch – and who are controlled by the mystic or ideological force of Evil. So the further result of that is mistrust, prejudice on the political level, and repression and sublimation in terms of the psyche. The non-Good, the misfit or the irrational, is not an abstraction, so you can’t disprove it – all you can do is chain it down and suppress it. So any energy, feeling and inclination that doesn’t fit the Code of the Good is to be denied, feared and squashed. Except that it doesn’t squash that easily, or for that long – because it’s alive.

However once you turn to the direct experience of Dhamma-cultivation, the abstracts lose their grip, and the suppressed and sublimated comes to the surface. Then, as we are frequently instructed, the practice is to let the judgements float, and instead be directly aware; to not react but investigate and be steadily patient with one’s inner misfits, rebels and demons. To learn to listen inwardly and feel mind-states and what they produce; whether this thought or that mood takes you to a good place or not. What you discover is how grudges and deceit feel bad and cause agitation; and how compassion and honesty feel good. Through this wise handling comes vitality, empathy and earthy wisdom. You get to know, not Good and Evil, but what is skilful, beneficial, and conducive to welfare – and what causes suffering and stress. And that good thoughts and bad thoughts all have the nature to pass; while the awareness of all this gets palpably bright. Moral intelligence dawns as the precursor of full awakening.

The understanding of good and evil was the Buddha’s second great insight of the three that led to his awakening. Actually, the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ aren’t in this account; instead we have ‘well-conducted’ versus ‘ill-conducted’, ‘right in their views’ versus ‘wrong in their views’, and ‘giving effect to right/wrong views in their actions’; and further, ‘I saw how beings pass on according to their actions.’ (See M4 or M36). There’s moral responsibility there, but it’s related to actions and inclinations, not to abstract forces. Both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ lead on to further birth, and in the third great insight, the Buddha saw how he could get beyond that. This doesn’t negate moral consequences (heavenly/fortunate and hellish/unfortunate are still there in terms of results), but it places these experiences within the context of the process of awakening. By studying these intentions, it becomes clear that both right and wrong are subject to attachment. That is, if you cling to right as an absolute, you’re working from an assumption of being some ongoing entity or self, in a world of ongoing substantial things out there. Well, that’s going to take you to a corresponding destination – as an ongoing identity who has to keep juggling, ducking and holding on; while you and your fellows move on towards ageing, sickness and death. 

Nevertheless right is right (though not Right) through being engaged with conscience and concern, empathy and an awareness of cause and effect; it encourages wise moderation. So as you come to witness and handle the mind, you step back from and investigate intention and inclination; and that lessens the power of reckless impulses. You gain some open space. As you get steadier in that witnessing space, the mind moves into integrity and ‘to others as to myself’: it comes out of short-term self-interest into right view and finally into selfless open clarity. You go from bad to good to clear; but you have to go through the good. Awakening then is the end of a process that successively opens the mind out of self and into wholeness, out of entities and into relationships, out of winning and losing and into release.

Conversely, whenever the mind grabs and claims ‘I am’, the opening process reverses – into self and others and winners and losers. Selfhood gets formed out of the good and makes it the Good, and so Evil is born – as in any fundamentalist view.

So you have to study this, in yourself and in others. What is appropriate, now; what is skilful, now; what is beautiful to do – now? Reflecting on good and bad wisely enhances one's moral intelligenceAnd there are some great lessons both in the Vinaya and in the Suttas. Take the Buddha’s cousin Devadatta, for example, a bhikkhu, and a zealot who wanted to impose stricter standards on the Sangha, and who yet tried to have the Buddha assassinated on seven occasions. Ooops, well no need to guess where he was headed … And yet, the Buddha’s comment was that after a period in hell, he’d get through that, get back to the earthly level, and even become a Buddha himself in some future age. So – the mind is a process, and has no final destinations. Which is just as well for Angulimāla, the serial killer who murdered 999 people before coming across the Buddha. Awed and finally trained by the Buddha, he became an arahant – though apparently people still threw rocks at him. This fellow needs to be up there on the shrines of meditators: you think you’re a lost cause because you were wild in your youth, or you went to jail ten years ago – well, reflect on Angulimāla. You can turn your process around. But on the other hand, Sāti, the bhikkhu who proclaimed that consciousness transmigrates from one life to the next is roundly castigated by the Buddha as one of ‘pernicious view’ without even a ‘spark of wisdom’ who by ‘wrong grasp’ has ‘injured yourself and stored up much demerit; for this will lead to your harm and suffering for a long time.’ (M. 38) What was I saying about who I used to be and how I think I’ll end up? Gulp.

So despite his awareness of the transitory nature of heaven and hell, the Buddha is not Mr. Easy Going. Instead, he broadens what most of us would consider good and bad to refer to: if it leads or supports views and actions that keep the mind stuck in any kind of entity – even consciousness as a lasting immaterial essence – then that’s a contraction that goes against the stream of awakening. Sooner or later it will take us into Good and Evil. So do you believe that you are somebody who has a future, or can be measured against another person, or has a past to atone for? That you have a destiny, or need to work out your kamma? That’s a crime against clarity! Thirty blows!

Monday, 1 July 2013

Mindfulness of Mindfulness

One of the topics at the recent Vipassana Teachers’ Conference that I attended at Spirit Rock, California was mindfulness. Or rather the ‘Mindfulness’ phenomenon: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Childbirth, Mindfulness for Sports people, Mindfulness for Businessmen, and Mindfulness in the Military. A calm collected emotional state and a clear present-moment attention can have many applications to improve how a human being functions, and mindfulness is commonly understood to provide just that.  In terms of its popularity (in the West at least) it has outgrown, and often doesn’t even acknowledge, its ancient Buddhist parent with all her religious views. Understandably so: ethnocentric Buddhism often doesn’t present much one could call mindfulness – or even Dhamma.

However, some of the Vipassana Teachers, including myself, expressed their concern – what about mindfulness as a Dhamma practice aimed at liberation? What about mindfulness based on right view? Rather than teaching soldiers to be more calm and collected, wouldn’t instructions in ethics and kamma be more to the point? And as Mindfulness required some sort of certification (one nun mentioned that she had been prevented from attending a patient in a hospital because she didn’t have evidence of Mindfulness training), who does the certifying? And how qualified are the teachers? I mused over the thought of impending turf-wars over whose mindfulness was best: that gleaned through years of sitting up straight and watching the breath, or a form learned in a classroom without relinquishment or pain. I also noted an underlying irony: the Vipassana movement itself stepped away from the Theravada tradition in a similar way about forty years ago, and, uncertain of how much of its parent’s attitudes and culture to embrace, only acknowledges those roots when it seeks some. We seem to be negotiating the same tensions: trimmed-down and secular versus overblown and traditional, Puritan versus Catholic, all over again.

Later on we did explore the meaning of mindfulness in Buddhism: is it a technique of noting, a moment-at-a-time, phenomena that arise within an unwaveringly focused attention? Finding the rigour of this approach too rigid and stressful, some teachers have espoused a less object-centred approach of tuning into awareness itself – an approach that is backed up in Tibetan Dzogchen practice, or in Advaita Vedanta, but which finds less secure ground in the Pali texts of Theravada. Which is confusing for those seeking Theravada/Pali roots.

One problem to me seemed to be that of taking the method through which mindfulness is  applied microscopically, a method taught by acknowledged masters such as the Mahasi Sayadaw and Sayadaw U Pandita (and a foundation for the major early Vipassana teachers), to be mindfulness itself.  But to swing the other way and to say the mindfulness is just about being aware in the present, seems to miss a salient feature of what the texts (and the practice) are about. Mindfulness entails more than being choicelessly aware in the present moment. Take for example: ‘he possesses the highest mindfulness and skill, he recollects and remembers what was done long ago and spoken long ago.’ (M53.16). Here, the mindful practitioner, keen to follow the teachings, brings them to mind to act as a frame of reference of his/her present experience.

So mindfulness has a referential quality; it connects present-moment experience to a frame of reference. The teachings on the four establishments of mindfulness exemplify this. Mindfulness of body, feeling, mind-state and ‘essences’ (more on that later) in the ‘establishment of mindfulness’ suttas (M.10, D.22) – is a referential practice, referring bodily experience to the body, feeling to the realm of feeling, the current state of mind to the domain of mind, and mental essences – potentials such as ill-will or goodwill that support mind-states – to themselves, just as they are. Why? Because in this way, which is called the ’direct path… for the disappearance of pain and grief …for the realisation of nibbāna’ one isn’t referring them to ‘my self’ and ‘how I should look’ and ‘why is my mind in this state?’ and so on. Nor is one distracting oneself, spacing out, or suppressing mind-states. This reference, bare or judgement and self-representation is of course at the heart of mindfulness as a therapeutic tool: it clears out the mis-reference of judgement – of feeling bad about one’s body and so on. In the practice of the four establishments, mindfulness replaces the agitation and reactivity of self-view with clarity and calm. That steady calm allows mind-states to unravel to the great ‘unbinding’ of nibbāna.

Reference to an object in and of itself is then part of what mindfulness offers.  But in Buddhism there’s more to it than that. The texts present mindfulness as being accompanied by other factors – I call them ‘friends and relatives’ – some or all of whom tag along with mindfulness so that its motivation and application is clear, and that there is a learning from what the frame of reference presents. For instance take mindfulness in the eightfold path: it’s only one factor of an unfolding process which begins with right view and leads on through right speech and right action through right mindfulness and into samādhi or right unification of mind. In this process the most important factor is right view – the wise perspective that reminds us that everything we say, do or even think has results, for good or for bad. This view is the basis and the motivation behind cultivating one’s life: ‘there is the result of good and bad deeds ...’ Right view affirms that we can enter on a good way through being fully and responsibly conscious; it motivates us to pay attention. Mindfulness then carries right view into living experience; by highlighting the mind-states that are the causes and results of our actions, it gets the mind to see which ones are for our true benefit.

So: ‘…when your virtue is well-purified and your view is straight, based upon virtue, established upon virtue, you should develop the four establishments of mindfulness.’ (S47.15) Now, the body isn’t virtuous or non-virtuous in and of itself, and neither is feeling, so this instruction isn’t about object-definition but about how one attends and why. Robbing a bank or slaughtering a chicken might require clarity, focus and calm, but they wouldn’t be themes for right mindfulness (although there is such a thing as ‘wrong’/miccha’ mindfulness), because they don’t reveal the ‘essence’, in this case the mental potencies of avarice, shamelessness and non-empathy. So, for right mindfulness, the ‘attentive’ aspect of mindfulness has to connect with felt awareness of one’s approach and intention. Because attention, manasikāra, is amoral; assassins can cultivate it to a high degrees. But attention is only one aspect of mind, the aspect that is operated through manas – mind as rational, object-defining tool. This is the function that gets tuned to high degrees of efficiency and speed. People racing through piles of data, people rapidly trading stocks and shares, people behind screens, scanning and taking notes have high degrees of attention and rapid reference. But what they’re not referring to is their own mind, mind as ‘heart’ or ‘citta’. This is the mind of feelings and impressions and of ‘how I am’; mind as an empathic and central steady ground. And through lack of clear reference to citta, we have rampant social and individual disease – people losing themselves in what grabs attention; people stressed out through losing contact with their inner ground, even to the extent of not knowing that there is one. Because the systems and cultures that they operate through continually emphasise that happiness and success only come through chasing and acquiring what’s out there.  And as soon as you get and acquire, then that’s out of date – so get a new one.  This is the world of surface, of which the touch screen is the icon: contact is instant, glassy, and lacking depth. You just bounce from one thing to the next. In such a scenario, there’s no inner home, just a centre that remains swampy, hungry and restless.

That’s why right mindfulness is vital. If there is one life-saving feature that I’d say mindfulness is about is that it connects manas the object-definer to citta the subjective sense.  Mindfulness is the moment of holding the question ‘How am I with this?’ To use the image of a hand: attention is like the fingers, and citta is like the palm. Fingers can probe, twiddle and touch, but are unable to collect anything. The palm can’t probe and inquire, but it receives, collects and fully feels what the fingers place in it. So citta has the storekeeper’s wisdom – it wants to know what is worth being in touch with, what can be held for one’s welfare. It certainly needs educating, and that is the function of ‘deep’ or ‘wise’ attention (yoniso manasikāra), the attention that refers sense data to the feeling and responsive heart of the mind. This then is another friend of mindfulness. Deep attention draws on skilful ‘intention/volition’ (cetana), the inclination of citta. Then, to assess that experience, to feel how a sight or sound, thought or memory affects you – deep attention clarifies the contact-impression (adhivacana phassa) in the heart. So when right view and deep attention guide mindfulness, it draws manas and citta together; and this results in a clear, ethically-attuned awareness.

As for objects: as you attend to the experience of body, beneath the surface, curl the fingers of attention towards the receptive palm and you have established mindfulness of body, the embodied sense that gives you ground. As you get embodied, feeling comes to the fore. Attend to feeling, and as you notice how it changes, this clear comprehension (sampajañña) makes you less reactive in the presence of pleasure or pain. Curl the attention further back to the palm so that it’s only attending to mental impressions – and you have mindfulness of mind-states and their essences, the connection that opens and clarifies the heart. Eventually, when fingers and palms meet in a sensitivity that has no aim and object other than that meeting, you have samādhi - the mind is unified. Attention comes home, and finding that this is a very comfortable place to be, intention settles into appreciation and ease.

Furthermore, mindfulness is involved with wisdom. It may be correct to say that mindfulness is non-judgemental – but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t support assessment. It is in the putting aside biased judgements and short-term impulses (‘covetousness and grief regarding the world’) that assessment of what is really useful can take place. So to avoid having its attention hijacked, mindfulness has to established and made firm: one image is of a man carrying a bowl of oil on his head with another walking behind him with a sword ready to cut his head off if he spills a drop. ‘If even,’ to paraphrase the Buddha, ‘the most beautiful girl in the world sings and dances in front of him, would he give her any attention?’ (S.47.20) No, his mindfulness is firmly established on balance, the key to clear assessment of what is really needed or true in any situation. 

It’s fortunate that the ‘head-lopping’ technique is not usually offered in meditation retreats, but the point has to be learnt somehow. Patiently, persistently and without getting sidetracked even by self-criticism or doubt, mindfulness has to be established so that those fingers don’t grab hot coal. Knowing what burns or stabs the heart, or entangles it with no benefit, is up to each of us to find out; but for that mindfulness needs friends – ardour (atapi) and energy (viriya) – are needed. Effort? Striving? Put it another way: right energy comes from fullness of heart, not blind will. With bright heart we can keep mindful of citta through all its changes, but without that persistence we don’t learn. Learning how to support the body, and to train, encourage, gladden and soothe the mind is the pragmatic wisdom that makes a decade of persistence worthwhile. But more directly than that, right energy is just an expression of being fully here; what else is mindfulness about?

Transcendence, that’s what. In another parable (S.47.8), the Buddha presents the examples of two cooks; both present their master, the king, with his meal – but one does and one doesn’t notice what food the king enjoys. The one who doesn’t notice serves the same food every day, regardless – and gets fired. The one who notices what food the king chooses from the meal, continues to refine the meal he prepares in line with what most satisfies his master – and gets promoted. The parable then likens these to the way that two bhikkhus – who are both described as being mindful and clearly comprehending – present a meditation theme to their minds. Of the two, the ‘foolish, incompetent’ bhikkhu doesn’t note how his mind responds, so he gets no good results; but the ‘wise, competent’ bhikkhu takes note and ‘his corruptions are abandoned’.  This makes the point that mindfulness needs to attend to ‘the sign of the mind’. This is beautiful: at the gate of the transcendent, citta will present subtle signs of luminosity, ease, vastness or stillness. Any of these may be a key to be picked up, held and explored.  So we need to look and feel more deeply to what meditation theme it picks up readily and enjoys rather than keep blindly pushing.

This is the entry to the mystical experience, when the heart attunes to a felt sense that isn’t coming from the sense of self. The fine-tuning comes through another of mindfulness’ friends, one that tastes the essences that support any mental state. This is ‘investigation of essence’, dhammavicaya. It has to be applied to the citta as in: ‘What effect is this having on my mind?’ or ‘What is motivating this practice?’  So in establishing mindfulness, we’re encouraged to assess whether the mind at this time is ready to dwell on a particular meditation theme, considering for example: ‘Can my mind find focus on this aspect of breathing or does it settle more readily while walking? Or is this the time when gentle kindness is a more suitable place to dwell?’ Through investigation the corruptions of forcefulness, ambition, or any ego-bound program get weeded out. They are replaced by a more subtle invitation into Truth.

In this way, citta educates manas in the ways of directly-experienced wisdom. And manas pays back by casting that wisdom into concepts that form the storehouse of one’s contemplative know-how.

Without mindful reference, awakening, wisdom, and even kindness remain concepts and ideals that remain out of reach. But without referring to its supportive companions, mindfulness doesn’t penetrate much deeper than granting an improved quality of attention. As a member of a team, mindfulness frees the mind from the burden of self-consciousness, self-hatred and self-orientation – the shift that is the heart of awakening.  Maybe as ‘Mindfulness’ moves into the mainstream, it will naturally encourage some of its practitioners to participate in that process. However, there’s also the danger that, as has become the case with hatha yoga, it will be shorn of its mystical depth and transformative power. Will it become another money-making commodity that improves people’s capacity to work on the same treadmill as before – or will it help to refresh its forgetful Buddhist parent?