Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Good, The True and The Beautiful

The above illustration is not great art, but it’s unlikely that it was intended to be. Its meaning and value lie not in the stereotyped figures, but in the event that it depicts: the newly-awakened Buddha’s teaching of the Middle Way and the Four Noble Truths to the five ascetics in the Deer Park near Varanasi. The aim of the picture is to bring that occasion to the mind in a graphic rather then verbal way. Placed on a wall, it forms an integral part of a shrine room – with Buddha-images on altars which encourage devotion to, and recollection of, the Triple Gem. Although it lacks originality, for that purpose it is adequate.

Of course this picture isn’t an accurate rendition of that cardinal event in the Deer Park. The Buddha, who had spent months living in the wilderness and then walking from Bodh-Gaya, would not have arrived in neatly pleated robes. The ascetics would not have been identical in appearance or look well-fed and well-groomed; their seating arrangement is artificial, etc. However an accurate representation is not the point; in fact there would be no point in such a representation, as the purpose of the illustration is to support devotion, not for a historical record. Actually the illustration might have worked better if the artist had followed the classic tradition of murals with their prescribed conventional forms and lack of perspective. Then we would realize we’re in another reality. As it is, the imagery is awkward because it wavers between being symbolic and following the ‘realist’ conventions established in the Italian Renaissance.

The Renaissance was a humanist movement; that is, it promoted a 'this-world' rather then ‘religious’ focus on reality. In terms of the arts, it presented human beings as they looked and in settings that were of the world visible to the contemporary eye. Perhaps the single most important shift in terms of painting was the establishment, by Filippo Brunelleschi around 1420 CE, of the laws of perspective. The effect of all this was to bring the sacred down to earth. Nearly two centuries later, Galileo (who had previously taught perspective in his career as an art teacher) abolished the earth-centred cosmos (and unwittingly undermined heaven at the same time). The skill of precise measurement through devices and machines established modern science, which moved away from religion and became the supreme arbiter of reality. ‘Objective’ reality was born. You could observe it through a telescope. 'Objective reality' means that a number of people can stand apart from or outside the object, measure the object, and arrive at the same consistent results: the object is ten metres high or weighs five kilograms. Through such findings we can comprehend the observed world and, through experimentation and ingenious inventions, make use of it. It’s a human-centric universe and an egalitarian one: no higher or transcendent way of apprehending reality is acknowledged. So although God was allowed to survive for a few subsequent centuries, He had to become an architect or an engineer to do so. Rationality, with its methods of defining experience by means of artificial measuring devices, became the supreme arbiter of reality.

Well, Einstein made some adjustments to that scheme: Relativity Theory presented a material universe in which space and time were no longer neutral constants, but formed ‘spacetime’ – a curved medium that warped in accordance with gravitational forces. Experiments showed that matter affects how spacetime bends – time slows down in the presence of gravity – and the curvature of spacetime affects how matter moves.  So the old forms of measurement became relative, dependent on velocity and gravitation. The straight line was abolished, and the laws of perspective became only relatively true. Quantum theory went a step further: it made our apparent reality even more relative through the proposition that the act of measurement intrudes on and affects that which is measured – meaning that there is no such thing as objective reality. You can’t stand outside reality and measure it – which, when it’s expressed like that, makes perfect and obvious sense. However, despite this so-far unassailable truth, the momentum that the measuring sciences created still pertains, and we speak of objective reality, and of ‘being objective’. We recoil from the idea that what we perceive is, and can only be, a subjective interpretation. We base our lives, politics and national narratives on (disputed) 'facts', and regard the intellect as the supreme human function. Of course, its findings and methods work quite ‘well’ – in terms of the material and measurable domain that it takes to be reality; and its offspring, technology, rules our lives.

Technology makes the created material world compliant to our wishes, and exploitable for our economic gain. And most of us now live in a world that is measured, probed, and used according to the priorities that secular humanism has established. The earth is not sacred, the cosmos is not a domain of wonder and reverence; they are ours to explore at will and turn to our apparent advantage whenever we can. We live in cities insulated from natural processes where our lives and social infrastructures are run by complex equipment. We delight in vehicles that can move our bodies around, and devices that can bring any aspect of the ‘real’ world to our screens. And if that’s not enough, then technology will provide us with fantasies to feed our senses on. This amazing power should bring us happiness, meaning, and a world of peace and plenty. It doesn’t.

It doesn’t because it doesn’t nourish something vital: the measureless, immaterial reality that isn’t apprehended through the five external senses or the thinking mind. This includes moral balance; awareness that transcends the changing display of thoughts, emotions and sensations; and the domain of happiness, peace and liberation. A dogmatic scientist either denies that there is such a reality, or configures it as a phenomenon generated by the brain, or by neuro-chemicals. However, although the mind-set that adheres to a single-faceted material reality can order, flatten and bomb the material world – and in its benign aspects mend our bodies and anaesthetise our pain – it cannot create moral balance, peace of mind or liberation. So after a few centuries of scientific and technological progress, we are at risk of so severely misusing the earth as to make large parts of it unliveable by the end of the century. And even now, the best and bravest solutions to the environmental crisis still rely on rational, technological solutions. The view is that we can tweak our lifestyle, change from coal to solar, create a few National Parks and continue on the same trajectory of an economic growth that hinges on our ability to dominate and exploit. Meanwhile, the human of the developed world is highly likely to be suffering from stress and depression.

Meanwhile, on another front, there is the measureless domain of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Ariya-Sangha. A practising Buddhist is encouraged to develop the measureless mind/heart through cultivating the qualities of goodwill, compassion, rejoicing in the good, and equanimity. Or to cultivate samādhi to the level of the perception of boundariless space and boundariless consciousness. These point to a very different reality: while measurement refers to quantities, to how things appear in terms of notionally objective measuring tools, the measureless qualifies our subjective experience. To give an analogy: the statement ‘Two plus two equals four’ may be mathematically accurate, but it's meaningless in terms of subjective experience: eating two apples and then watching two kangaroos doesn’t make a meaningful foursome. The quantifiable is the appearance of exteriors – weight, shape, number, speed – and the qualifiable is the manifestation of interiors – such as happiness, respect, trust, ease and harmony. Now these can meet in harmony if they acknowledge each other and are led by wisdom, and this is Dhamma practice: to bring interior meaning and values to the world of separate measurable entities through right view, right effort and right mindfulness. Accordingly, Dhamma practice is summed up by an important qualifier: ‘kalyāna.’ It is, and has to be, ‘kalyāna in the beginning, kalyāna in the middle, kalyāna in the end.’ Kalyāna is often translated as ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, but with a little reflection, it can also comfortably fit the third word of the Platonic Ideal, ‘the true.’

Firstly kalyāna , is the ‘good’ – it’s about virtue, the quality that aligns the mind to mutual care and respect, and that encourages the ‘we’ sense. It is the ‘beautiful’, in that it aligns awareness to the awe and sensitivity that hushes thought, the ‘thou’ sense that we might experience in Nature, or in deep meditation. And kalyāna is the ‘true’, through an awareness that sees things as they really occur in our consciousness, beyond reference to artificial means of measurement.

For example the presentation afforded by perspective painting isn’t a true presentation of how we see. If you hold your gaze steady, you see a field of vision that is flat and gets fuzzy at the edges. There is no distance, nor are there discrete objects; there's just a visual field of shapes and colours. You will experience a wavering pull towards the centre of that field or towards one relatively small region, which you experience as an object (a person, animal, tree, etc) that stands out from the background. Except that it doesn’t ‘stand out’ – your attention draws it out. Attention (manasikāra) narrows its focus, the rest of the visual field goes fuzzy, and the act of mental contact (phassa) refers to its known images to determine that a particular array of colours represents a person, animal or tree etc. It does so by rapidly tracing the boundary between one colour or tone and another and defining ‘shape’. Shape (rūpa) is instantly referred to the memory of similar shapes and colours – ‘this is like a cow, or a dog or a car.’ So attention and contact add another dimension to the flat visual field: that thin dark shape is a shadow that is being formed by a crease in a three-dimensional object; that flat shape that reminds me of a man has a back (even though I can’t see it right now) and depth. It's your mind as much as your eyes that makes the objects and the relative distance at which they appear. And as in the many examples of ‘trick’ drawings or ‘Magic Eye’ illustrations, the role of focus/attention and of mental interpretation can distort apparent reality, or swing between two conflicting representations. Take another example: much of Picasso’s art defies the conventions whereby a flat painting is held to represent dimensions. In his Cubist work, the features of a human face may be so arranged that the mind can’t create the familiar three-dimensional object. In this way, the painting plays with and challenges conventional representation, and a renewed ‘interior’ experience is the result. But is it real? Picasso was once presented with a photograph by a man insisting that this was how his wife really looked, not as in a Cubist image. The artist took the photo, and, turning it over in his hand, commented: ‘She’s rather small, isn’t she? And flat?’

But as Picasso also said, ‘Art is a lie that tells the truth.’ Or a truth: the truth of representation is that it presents a source of interpretation; and through interpretation, mental or emotional states get generated. Hence campaigning politicians are extremely careful that their physical appearance, their facial gestures and tones of speech carry a popular ‘message’. Suitable representation, as much as, or more than, policies, wins or loses elections. So much for objective appraisal. But, to return to the experience of holding a steady gaze: can you notice that if your gaze is really steady, that it’s hard to see any consistent object? What is experienced instead is a procession of subtly flexing forms that never acquire stasis and therefore defy interpretation. The flat and static reality of the ‘realist’ perspective may be an interpretation that we now conform to, but the truth of conscious experience is that of a radical impermanence in which form appears dependent on  the play of attention and contact. And the perception of impermanence is a basis of Dhamma: because we consequently realize that there is no beautiful thing to desire and no final truth to conceive of. Instead a relationship of calm and dispassion is to be encouraged. Jealousy, grasping, hoarding and attachment to views stop. Truth therefore supports the good.

As for that – science is extremely intelligent and useful, but in itself it is not ‘good’. Einstein, on recognizing that his work as a scientist had been the foundation for the development of the atom bomb, commented that, if he’d known in advance how his discoveries would be used, he would have made watches instead. The good is the recognition that all creatures are subjects, they all experience life (and the sentient ones have feeling too). Nothing is an object of my wishes, opinions or perspectives. A tree is a living organism that is processing light, water and air to support atmosphere, soil and wildlife. It is not potential furniture or pulp, or a useless occupant of land that could be pasture. What gives me the right to claim that? – the ignorance whereby the earth has lost fifty percent of its forest, so that climate change and the loss of wildlife and even topsoil (according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation we have only have sixty years of degrading the soil left before it becomes infertile dirt*) are impending realities. On the other hand, the good is the respectful acknowledgement that other creatures have the right to exist in and of themselves, whether I value them or not. Encompassing morality and goodwill, the good is the basis of life, not a legal matter.

Because the good supports the beautiful. That is, when we align our attention to the subjectivity of things, of reality not being a matter of my measuring instruments, views and inclinations, the beautiful is what remains. It is an experience of awe: that reality happens, beyond measurement and my measuring mind. Then, rather than try to reduce existence to a set of equations, our minds stop and open. And we can bow and be gladdened. This ‘stepping back’ (viveka) and gladness (pītī) quietens the mind as it opens into samādhi, the doorway to an increasingly refined set of realities.

Even more important than that is how consciousness, as it aligns to the good, true and the beautiful integrates us: we become generous, willing to share, and worthy of trust; we are free from the consumerism, that, more than war or disease, is wrecking the planet; and we can know deep inner peace. And if consciousness can recognize that all its representations are of less value than its own awareness, it can cease creating them: the consummation of the true, the good and the beautiful, is the Unconditioned. Finally there’s no truth more fulfilling than the mind’s release; and no one can picture that.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Mind Out of Time

I have just returned to New Zealand from New South Wales, Australia – Wat Buddha-Dhamma to be precise – where I had spent the past fourteen weeks on solitary retreat. The Wat lies 15 kms. up a dirt road in the Dharug National Park, which is part of a larger wilderness area of hundreds of square kilometres. As I had no routines to follow and no duties (except to attend the fortnightly Pāṭimokkha recitation, and to pick up my meal once a day), this made for a remote abiding, punctuated only by the occasional email via the ubiquitous internet. I haven’t seen much of Australia, but the difference between its landscape and New Zealand’s struck me immediately. They are both rugged, but the Australian outback feels immeasurably older. This impression is created not just by the sight of goanna lizards slouching around, but by the soil. It’s largely sand. And on reflection, I recognized that this is the oldest soil on the planet. Most areas of the earth have been under the sea and received sediment, or been ground and shovelled by glaciers, or twisted and folded, or spewed over by volcanoes. Not Australia. The land has been stable for hundreds of millions of years. And once human beings killed all the large browsing mammals except kangaroos, it has received no manure and not been dug up and turned over. Instead, with the browsers gone, the land received masses of leaf-litter, and that has become fuel for fires. So despite the resilient vigour of its plant and animal life (nature is amazing) the land feels raw. As if it’s in suspended animation.

Something of that timelessness ran through my retreat. The clock carried numbers, but time was measured by the slow and repeated change of light and of my own energy. There was no clear change of season, the weather cycled through days of wet and cool then hot and dry and back again. There were always some plants in flower, and with no leaf-fall, there was no ‘winter’ as I know it. And when the external senses don’t detect time in terms of moving forwards, the time of the mind becomes apparent. This time is cyclical rather than sequential and measured in terms of memories and anticipations that arise, push and, with practice, subside. Hence, marked by aspirations as well as hindrances, the turns and stories of personal history become the meditation theme. As my teacher, Ajahn Sumedho, famously said: ‘The past is a memory, the future is uncertain, now is the knowing.’

Well after a few years, the searing and poignant memories of my personal history have been sent through the ‘forgive and/or let go’ mill so many times that they’re worn down and infertile. Meanwhile, another feature of the samana life is that there’s not much to look forward to (as Ajahn Sumedho also remarked, adding, generally with a big laugh: ‘except old age, sickness and death’). Hmm. This may all sound bleak, and would be if the world described by personal history were the only one we have access to. People certainly make a lot of it, with its status and events. But isn’t that world always marked by wishing and regretting, meeting and parting, gaining and losing and physical decline? Meanwhile, ‘now is the knowing’: we’re always aware. This is outside of history and person.

Awareness is the centre of what we call ‘mind’, but normally of course, the mind is awareness plus regret, or longing, or analysis, or sidetrack and rumbling trains of thought moving forward, backwards – or anywhere except the simply open present. So it takes training, but with guidance and effort, the meditator centres on awareness as the feature of the mind that is constant, irreducible and needs no comment. Consequently, as awareness releases from these associated activities, it is revealed in its depth and warm beauty. It’s a given treasure.

However such release is a deep process. Even as history and the longing for something to do recede, a long meditation retreat still reveals the extent to which the mind refers to time. It might manifest with the thought: ‘I’ll sit in meditation for two hours and then walk.’ This seems harmless enough, or even a responsible commitment, but what does ‘two hours’ – or even ‘two minutes’ – mean as a directly felt experience? What lies behind planning and measuring? And how relevant is a time measurement to meditation or awakening? Is it the mind’s attempt to derive value – as in ‘I sat without moving for two whole hours’ – a value that rapidly devalued when one discovers that some Master or another sat for three, four or five days rock-solid in samādhi? And is that necessarily a mark of awakening? When my mind plays that one, it seems more like conceit: conceiving oneself to be better, worse, the same as someone else – and the ‘someone else’ is also just what the mind conceives.  And this is just one of a heap of time markers, along with the anguish of ‘progress’ and ‘failure’, that descend with every attempt to create personal significance. So the humility of the practice is to acknowledge limitations in terms of energy or pain-tolerance and relax the mental stuff around that. It gets more useful to simply move around or sit still, lie down, stand or chant in accordance with what is conducive to skilful mind-states and their enjoyment, or what supports the allaying or penetration of unskilful states. Natural boundaries arise, and they can flex.

Another time sense that comes up is ‘what happens next?’ This could be the ‘waiting for a breakthrough’ syndrome, or the restless mind’s search for something to do. As in: ‘It’s time to do X now, so I’d better come out of meditation.’ Thus the mind searches for markers in time, seeks limits and craves for its own bondage. Meanwhile what is most pertinently occurring is the creation of benchmarks and highlights where none need exist. So one of my meditation reminders was and is: ‘there is no next moment, so what is this now?’ How does it feel? And what triggers it? How important is that? As for ‘again’ – even when it’s in terms of coming to this lovely monastery again – all that ever comes ‘again’ are time-marks tinged with suffering. But time-marks aren’t there until the mind makes them. And it doesn’t have to; in fact it feels a lot better to not make them.

So a good part of the practice was and is just about feeling these marks and releasing them. Their images, ideas and the accompanying mental pictures are saññā – which both dazzles awareness and triggers the reactions that block wisdom. This is why it’s been useful to work on ‘personal history’ all these years; that is all saññā. And who now, does all that happen to? Nobody but a dream, a tale signifying … an arousal, a stirring or a locking, in the nerves. So, with what has become as standard practice for me, I stay in the body, feeling those effects, widen and soften attention and breathe through. Not to get rid of or release or understand anything, but just because it’s the natural response from awareness. And as the mark subsides, and the time sense with it, there is a deepening.

Then – how does it feel when there’s no gain, no failure, nothing to achieve or even understand? Can I open to that gift? The sense of felt space then becomes very acute, and enjoyable. And far from spacing out, walking within that open space (especially in the world of trees and birds, where time is not created) feels about as real as it can get to being on this planet. The nature of awareness is to embrace and share itself among us.

This is what makes the practice, and all who enter into it, generous. Dhamma shares our qualities with whoever can receive them. And although personally I feel that I have nothing special or original to say, the world of invitations to teach or visit keeps rolling on with gusto. So that means time, appointments and logistics; visas, schedules and bookings. Their absurdities mount up. I’m currently being asked by an airline what food I would like to eat on a flight next June. They call this the real world? I can almost hear the gum trees laughing.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Brightening the mind: non-isolation

What follows is a response to a query from my last posting: ‘How do you brighten the mind?’ The question isn’t an unusual one, and that in itself says something. Despite hundreds of years of human development, improvement in terms of health, communications, opportunities for travel, let alone a deluge of commodities, the mind often remains a gloomy or barren space. If ‘space’ is even the right word for the multi-layered tangle of pressures, imperatives, anxieties and dead-ends that people find themselves experiencing. Ultimately, this can only be solved by releasing the mind from the message of the external senses. But on a more mundane level, this isn’t personal, it’s social. Depression is the number one life-inhibitor in the developed world, and number two as a global average (some places haven’t caught up with us, yet).

It was in the twentieth century in the wake of industrialization that an objectless gloom first seems to have hit home as a feature of western culture. Maybe because by then mainstream society had fully taken in the two main psychological themes of industrial development, both of them being dead-ends. One theme is that you have to make your own way through hard work in a competitive world that measures you in terms of productivity; the other is that material goods will provide you with happiness. So the heart is divided between self and others, and between its internal values and external comforts – it has to sacrifice empathy and contentment for getting ahead and getting more. These themes are the grim message of capitalism, which has become socialized into a lifestyle and therefore seems ultimately true. The latter of those themes has a limited truth: adequate housing with improved sanitation is certainly good and pleasant, but there comes a time when more basic needs are met and the ease that they grant is replaced with the incitement to get the faster, more advanced ... you name it. And consumer excitement is never going to ripen into contentment. In fact its reaching out drains the mind by latching well-being onto objects that can only provide brief happiness. Consumerism also requires people to keep up with the trends, thereby supporting the first message: you’re in a race in an ungenerous world.

To truly brighten the mind rather than dress it up with new stuff, is about refuting those two messages, and the isolationist view that they support. Because, however socialized we may be, we are still humans, and that means that our nervous systems have mirror neurons, and that means that we affect, remember and care for each other. No matter what the external senses present (and it is just a presentation), we are not self-contained units. Someone you know dies, and you feel it; someone inspires you and you learn. This is just the nature of mind; isolationist view is downright wrong. Unfortunately the economically-driven society runs on it. This and its resultant anxiety and depression are therefore what you have to meet. However, the point is that if you cast that view off, the mind returns to a natural brightness. It’s not that far away, nor do you have to be outstandingly brilliant.

Returning the mind to its natural brightness, rather than dressing it up, is a perspective-changing practice. It sets you free from the distraction industry and the commodities fever because you don’t need their stuff. The brightened mind is also the place for meditation, insight and release – but it isn’t initiated by meditation; in fact until you have put aside the twin messages, it’s unlikely that meditation will do much more than make you more attentive and calm. This isn’t at all bad, but a lot of meditators that I meet aren’t happy about their meditation; they feel they haven’t achieved the goals that they’ve heard about, and maybe they need more effort; or they’re looking for the right system, one that will give them the results they’re looking for. When you review these complaints, you can see that they are meditative formulations of the two isolationist messages: the self who has to work, and the glittering new thing that will do the trick. This is isolationist view with its ‘not there yet’ heaven.

In traditional Buddhist training isolationist view (aka self-view) and its messages is tackled at the outset of Dhamma-practice through the cultivation of giving (dāna), morality (sīla) and renunciation (nekkhama). These are pāramī, ‘furtherances’ that are to be kept going as an ongoing complement to whatever meditation one is doing and not being good enough at. The understanding behind pāramī is that erasing the self-boundaries is the basis of practice, not just a refined insight at the end of the Path.*

The preparation for these, and for all cultivation, has to be reflection, the ability to pause the streaming on of the mind and get it to look into cause and effect – that is the effects of one’s actions and the bubbling up that set them going. Ordinarily a lot of our actions are automatic, programmed responses and reactions; the result of high-speed, high-density lifestyles. The effect of this on the heart is a kind of blur, in which we don’t really see where we’re coming from. So part of mind-cultivation is just to look into the heart and start highlighting and selecting mental actions so that you can then benefit from reflecting on them. The teaching is that it is impossible that a skilful action will not leave a pleasant trace; but you have to reflect on it to detect that trace. When you do, the function of mindfulness is to stay on that trace and let it amplify in your awareness: which it will do. Then the pleasure of skilfulness starts glowing. So, right action and right mindfulness work together to give a bright result.

Bearing that in mind, generosity (or sharing) is considered to be the first pāramī, because this practice turns the heart around from ‘me’ to ‘we’; it’s accessible, and is an acceptable social action. We probably already do it, but don’t reflect on it adequately. You can give time, moral support, commodities, Dhamma. In its straightforwardness it breaches the boundaries of the isolated self and builds non-competitive relationships. (It’s one reason why the Dhamma should not be sold.) But, in the developed world, in keeping with the isolationist trend, most human services, such as healing, educating, child-minding, are sold: the developed world has converted human skill and goodness into a commodity. The results of that are professional expertise but no sharing and no community; hence a reduction in psychological richness and friendship.

To do generosity without the isolationist shadow of whether someone else deserves it, first think of it as sharing, as entering a ‘we’ sense. It’s not a matter of setting people apart by judging whose worth how much. You do dāna because with it, you think of someone else’s welfare, and you connect with them, and vice versa. And when you reflect on that mind-state, it has a brightening effect. Secondly it’s powerful to recollect how much has been given to you, without having to deserve it: a body, breathing, air, daylight, warmth, nursing, human support, intelligence etc. To linger in the feel of that – ‘where would I be without …?’ –  is mind-blowing. The notion of ‘deserving’ is the isolated self’s claim to supremacy and is one of the great human delusions: humans didn’t deserve to take over the planet and use it to the detriment of other species; Europeans didn’t deserve to take over the Americas and much of the rest of the world – we just did it, and then justified it later (if we needed to). But look around at what that idea justifies, and also feel the results internally. If you linger in the deserving mode you’re going to start judging others and yourself, and end up with a crabby mind.  Generosity blows that word away; it’s joyful.

Morality (sīla) is to be cultivated in the same light. It leaves a good feeling, helps others and gives you reliable friends. The isolationist take on that word renders it as righteousness (I’m better than) shadowed by guilt and punishment (could do better): it creates comparisons and divisions and a crabby mind. But this is far from the point. As Ajahn Chah commented: ‘…If other people’s sīla is not perfect or they do not behave like good monks, it is not your job to be judgemental. You won’t become wise by watching and blaming others. The Vinaya [discipline] is a tool to assist you in developing samādhi-bhāvana [meditation]. It is not a weapon for finding fault or judging who’s good and who’s bad. No one can practise for you, and you can’t practise for anyone else.  So be mindful of your own behaviour. This is the path of practice.’

So it may be more helpful to consider sīla as integrity: that which integrates or makes whole.  Then the result is one of being at ease with oneself: self-respect. Sīla is the intentionality that makes me a responsible part of a group; it supports non-isolation. It also means that I filter my interests and desires so that I can live without the regret that fractures the mind.  When you take on five precepts and you note at the end of the day that you didn’t abuse others or yourself, then there’s a sense of integrity. That’s a foundation for brightening. For example, I like to dwell in the consideration that because of sīla, no creature need fear me. Because of sīla, people can be free from mistrust with regard to me. I don’t break confidences, I don’t tell lies. Because of sīla, I don’t sell out; I’m not merchandise. It gives dignity, whilst in the money-driven world people become commodities.

Dāna and sīla also provide the foundation for extending goodwill.  About which much can be said, but not now.

Sīla also offers the dignity of restraint, which ripens into the world-changing inclination to lessen the amount of stuff one has to look after – and this allows you the time to cultivate the reflective practices that take you into the heart of the Dhamma. Lessening is nekkhama, the third root practice, translated as ‘renunciation’; combining that with wise reflection gives rise to contentment. But this is not asceticism: renunciation is the natural result of prioritizing what one values over what the world in general sees as valuable.  Values, such as honesty, kindness and generosity are innate; they are a part of what we’re born with. As you develop them, they can include a wider range of humans and animals. Non-separation. And you receive the benefit of a rich heart; one that doesn’t cost others anything but improves their lives. Everyone knows that at some place in themselves. But values get blocked by valuables: in essence, money, gold, credit, with the status and the power that they offer. It seems at first that one gains through such things, in terms of commodities, status, and admission into a social circle. But there’s also the fear of loss and the need to update; and perhaps the human quality of the circle of the elite isn’t that nourishing. But one thing is obvious: the ones who gain out of valuable commodities are those who deal in them. So although enough of the money is slushing around in the public domain to keep people in the game, a disproportionate amount of it is going into a relatively few pockets.  An elite of eighty people has the same amount of money/credit as the lower 50% of the global population. Valuables exclude and divide.

The messages of these root practices isn’t anything new or even exclusively Buddhist. But to develop reflection takes practice. Essentially the isolationist view is held by one aspect of mind – they used to call it ‘left brain’ – the manas function of determining objects, measuring surfaces and rearranging them. This separates us from what we’re attending to, for these functional purposes. Reflective practice is about perceiving experience from the subjective feeling sense, citta, the heart sense; this doesn’t separate. And there is an embodiment requirement for that, one that has to be developed. The various dissociative effects that I mentioned in my last posting, and which are societal and systemic, close people’s bodily awareness and even constrict subtle musculature: the body becomes a case. Now certain muscle groups are related to particular psychological and emotional effects: it doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge that a tight chest or belly are defence strategies; they cut off feeling. So if one is living with such a body, then a lack of emotional richness is going to be the result – whether you intend to be defensive or not. And the contrary: you’re going to experience the world as a less stuck and alien place if your upper body opens up. In detail: the musculature that runs from the breastbone diagonally and upwards to the top of each arm is associated with uplift, being held, and joy. If mindfulness of breathing is properly cultivated, this musculature will flex and brighten the mind. This is also the area that gets energized with chanting, especially devotional chanting when the hands are held in prayer position so that the base of each hand is in touch with the breastbone. Now, whether you do these practices (recommended of course) or not, this is the area to be focusing on when you cultivate intentions and actions to do with dāna, sīla, nekkhama. And even when you’re not, if you take a walk in a park or a garden if you centre your awareness at that place with the suggestion of simply meeting the world, nature will support your sense of non-isolation and assist a brightening of the mind.  To summarize: with actions of value, you should embody them, run them through your nerve-endings and get the chemicals flowing.

There’s a difference between separation, which is a necessary function for wise discernment (who wants to share a pool with a crocodile anyway?) and isolation (the well-being of other creatures is not my concern). Relative separation is necessary because the heart doesn’t do that – your two-year old would probably cuddle a grizzly bear without wise supervision. So what wise or deep attention does is to scan the senses and decide which of their messages are superficial (the bear does have thick fur) and which are more important (it has big meat-eating jaws). You get the meaning and abide in your wise heart.

The value of meditation is to enjoy that place and what it is aware of: as that mental basis refines, the brightening calms and is experienced as a subtle luminosity. It’s like the subtle light that you experience when you close your eyes, but keep looking; or the subtle sound of listening, ‘the sound of silence’. As one calms, the hazy movement of visual and auditory signals steadies. There is a bodily approach to that: within your bodily sense, as a background to the sensations and energies, there is a basis that feels both light and steady. And, as the bodily sense and the mental sense are sympathetic, reference to that opens the heart into a serene space.  This takes you out of the divided world of the senses: you begin to understand that your normal sense of body is just a presentation, not the only thing there is.  So there’s the hint: if consciousness can come out of stuck presentations, or even refrain from presentations and be ‘non-manifestative’ (anidassana), that’s where freedom lies.

In itself, brightening can get exciting and destabilising; when you access these effects and become familiar with them, you find the quieter luminosities more attractive. But throughout the process, it’s good to remember that a natural inner brightening is the reliable sign of Dhamma. You enter from where you are; subtle or everyday. This is because all true approaches bear the same light of wisdom: the freedom from isolationist view.

* You can download a book on the topic of Pāramī at

Monday, 17 August 2015

Engaged Disengagement

 I’m settled in at Wat Buddha-Dhamma, a spacious forest monastery in a National Park in New South Wales, Australia. I was offered this three-month Rains Retreat to spend in solitude, but before I entered that period, it seemed suitable to spend a couple of weeks with the rest of the community, being seen and contributing in whatever way I could. One of the monks was building a hut, using the sandy soil as building material. He was eager to get some kind of shelter together before the Rains began with the shut-down of building projects and the emphasis on meditation practice; so I thought I would give him a hand.

I’m no builder, and that was another reason to participate: to learn something. And even more interesting, to learn through the hands. My work was simple enough: to slap mud onto a template and build a wall about two feet/60cms thick with a central cavity of about 5 inches/12 cms to fill with rice husks for insulation. That was the instruction, to which when necessary were added quiet comments from the builder monk: ‘Pat it down well so that it bonds to the previous layer’; ‘Make sure all the rice husks go into the cavity, if they stick to the wall, the earth won’t bond.’ Meanwhile he was doing his learning; at one time nearly sliding off the corrugated metal roof before rigging up some strapping to hold onto when he lost balance. What was clear was that ‘there are no experts, we learn as we go along.’

It’s this kind of earthiness that I appreciate about the forest monk’s lifestyle. You watch what the other monks are doing, try to get the hang of sewing, chanting, meditating, living in the wilds; you make mistakes, there’s a laugh, and you try again. But you learn how to learn rather than have to get it all from a book and sorted out in your head before you dare begin. In many forest monasteries, meditation is encouraged but barely taught in the way that we would understand teaching. The instructions might be: ‘Use the word “Bud-dho” on the in- and out-breath; put other thoughts aside for now, investigate and tackle the defilements.’ That’s about it, along with plenty of modelling and anecdotes of the practice and results, and the encouragement to keep at it.

This can leave Westerners stranded. ‘How to put thoughts aside? Aren’t thoughts of goodwill and compassion to be cultivated? And what is a defilement anyway? Isn’t that a judgement and a lack of self-acceptance? How do you tackle your mind without blind will-power, or thinking even more?’ To which the response might well be: ‘Too much thinking ... walk up and down for an hour or so. Just relax.’ It seems simplistic, but the understanding is that as you get settled in your body, there’s a learning; you get a feel for the right balance and then the details start to come into focus. Body, then view; calm, then insight. Through bypassing your head, a lot of the need for certainties dissolve; your knowing is beyond thought and the need for belief. It’s a hands-on, suck it-and-see approach.

The main snag with this approach for Westerners is that most of us are barely in our bodies a lot of the time, and we only use our hands to press the button that will link us to a system that operates on our behalf. Except when it breaks down. Then we’re helpless, so we have to phone an engineer. This kind of relationship extends over so much of our infrastructure that the overall sense is that you, the individual, can’t deal with your stuff. Engineers, consultants, bankers, therapists; getting through life is a task for experts. And of course, to a great extent the systems we use make that true. My father used to fix his car; take the engine apart and tinker. You can’t do that with a 21st century automobile; can’t even change a headlight bulb – it’s all sealed in. At Cittaviveka, we did all our own electrical installation using volunteers and the skills’ base of one or two monks. After thirty years of doing that, with no problems, not only did the government ban it, but it also insisted that all the work we’d done be taken out and refitted by qualified electricians, at a cost of thousands of pounds. There are safety reasons, for sure. But the effect is that we become divorced from the environment that we live in; it’s not in our hands, we are its passive occupiers. Meanwhile in the general public environment, we are led by remote control. Traffic signals and flashing lights tell us when to walk. Turnstiles snap open and shut to get us moving through them at the correct speed. Recorded messages, thanking you for your call, respond to your phone or email inquiries. And when you fill in a form on the web, it won’t let you continue unless it understands and accepts your entry. There’s no-one there to negotiate with. In the face of such a dissociative environment, social dysfunction and personal dissociation are the consequence.

By this I mean that what one learns is that a) there is no room for free inquiry, for trial-and-error learning; instead the safe bet is to adopt the prescribed system; b) one is left with the feeling of personal impotence and lack of initiative, fearful of making a mistake (and being judged); c) if you have an idea, an intuition or hunch outside the information that is given to you – forget it, it’s irrelevant; it may even be illicit or dangerous. 

The result of that, depending on how far gone you are, is that there is no native intelligence when it comes to things such as how to meet people (you need a dating service); how to stay well (you need a dietician and a health expert); how to handle your emotions, disappointments and work load (you need a coach and a therapist). And all of it becomes true, because the participatory way of life and the natural intelligence that it encourages gets shut down by the Expert. Not that we don’t need advice – but a more useful process is one that helps you get your natural intelligence to wake up and step up; to develop personal confidence and self-reliance, and learn the details from there. But this development doesn’t happen just by telling it to. You have to go into situations with enough safety and enough challenges, and with friendliness and advice when you need it.

It’s much the same with Dhamma practice. The forest teachers, and especially the situation of being unplugged and in a forest with wild animals, encourage you to develop alertness and self-reliance and so make your own way in terms of Awakening. There are details, but these are given when needed; often they’re not technical, but just what a particular learner needs at the time. For example, in the case of an anagārika (apprentice) who was so up his head that ‘meditation’ was just wall-to-wall fantasy movies, and who lived in a tangle of thoughts most of the time, Ajahn Chah’s advice was: ‘Eat like a pig and sleep a lot.’ To get earthy. This is hardly canonical, and goes directly against the forest ajahns’ maxim of ‘eat little, talk little, sleep little.’ Such advice is relevant for the norm of people who are in their bodies; it’s pretty disastrous for the dissociated mind, which will spin out further if it disengages to that extent. Ajahn Chah was wise enough and flexible enough to reckon that the standards had to adapt to meet the case (a growing occurrence) of people being disembodied for most of the time.

Disembodiment is a common feature of dissociation, because the mechanism of dissociation is a response to shock or danger, whereby receptivity to bodily sensation is lowered or shut off. In the natural state, this allows you to react and escape without having to deal with any bodily feeling or emotional responses. Note that, as the body and heart-mind aren’t separate at the level of feeling and energy, the mechanism that switches off your bodily receptivity also switches off your mental, i.e. emotional, receptivity. Then, as you normalize, you come back into your body and emotional receptivity is re-established. If this return doesn’t occur, the result is trauma: buried pain, an emotional/psychological dead-spot that nevertheless can irrationally spring back to life when the incident that caused it is remembered or simulated. So with dissociation, trauma or not, it takes quite strong stimulation to feel ‘in’ your body, and emotional sensitivity is reduced. Hence when people live in dissociated contexts they experience a background sense of sterility. This is sensed as a loss of personal meaning and value, with loneliness as the relational norm. This mixture can be a basis for addiction (find something to get high with); an inability to form mutually-based (rather than domineering/dominated) relationships; and a constant sense that there’s ‘something wrong with me’ – which can transfer to anxiety about body shape or size. And overall there’s depression (the most common life-inhibitor in the West): ‘I can’t do anything about this; I’m stuck.’

So perhaps we try to meditate to get out of that. And meditation as we might read and therefore undertake, is about being on your own and calming the mind by focusing repeatedly on an object, and using a range of techniques to do so. But for a disembodied person, someone suffering from a sense of sterility and emotional numbness, this is not good medicine. It will tend to make them more numb – and therefore lost in thought, strategies and doubt; obsessively dependent on a technique and anxious for the ‘high’ of achievement. What they need is friendly non-intrusive company, practices that brighten the mind and encourage it to engage in skilful ways, and a non-technical, no-pressure approach that supports mindfulness rather than emphasizes a goal. This approach is the foundation of a samana’s life, from the time of the Buddha onwards. The norm is one of living during the early (five or more) years with an experienced guide, in a participatory social environment (in Pali, the disciple is ‘one who shares the cell’ with their teacher). To this is added the strong relational support of lay people and fellow monastics. The training is to acknowledge, enter and be part of a supportive field, one that is established at a heart and gut level. And it is at this non-rational level that an understanding is established – that you, as an individual with flaws, belong and can make a meaningful contribution; that you are in a society of cooperation, morality and generosity, and you're part of a tradition that realizes the highest human potential. Without the establishment of this felt spiritual field, ‘disengagement’ just deepens the dissociation: you’re not in this world, but you’re not in the Dhamma either. People can go very weird.

But as that field is established through witnessing other people acting in accordance with it, and through repeatedly chanting and reflecting on it, then a disengagement from worldly aims and values occurs naturally. And the default need to prove oneself, to compete and to achieve; the psychological defence and body armouring to cover the weak spots; and above all the sense that what you are isn’t good enough so that you can’t learn without detailed verbal input  – all that isn’t there. When that isn’t there, one doesn’t need that much information, and one readily feels gratitude and contentment; therefore one’s body is free from tension, the mind is happy and yes, it enters samādhi.  Consequently the most common defilement that the Asian teachers would be pointing out isn’t personal meaninglessness and self-aversion, but of getting so relaxed and at ease that one doesn’t use the time in a focused way. Hence: ‘Exert yourselves and strive!’ Hardly: ‘Eat like a pig and sleep a lot.’

As dissociation is by definition a state in which you’re not feeling that much, you’re not necessarily aware of it. So look out for: obsessive thinking, lack of self-worth, indifference to or awkwardness around other people, and compulsive habits, hobbies and chatter that substitute for ease of being in your own skin. And loss of bodily awareness. You may assume that the only sensations and feelings that occur for a body are the tactile ones caused by contact with external thing. But the theme of meditation on in- and out-breathing relies on access to, cultivation and enjoyment of the subtle energies and inner sensations (called ‘kāyasankhāra’) that are linked to the process of breathing. If you can’t feel them (and quite a few people can’t) then mindfulness of breathing will mostly be an exercise of holding your attention on a point in the body with will power – and that isn’t the way the Buddha taught it. You might be better advised to work on embodiment through Qi Gong or Hatha Yoga and pick up the breathing from there.

As for the mental aspects of dissociation: get to the nub, the gist of what the experience of being yourself is like. How does it feel? Don’t think it, get it in your gut and get your hands on it. So if you enter the state where thoughts form useless, unpleasant and compulsive loops – how are you with that? Even better – what is the bodily effect of that: giddy? groundless? or is there a lack of bodily sensation? And if the sense of ‘stuck’ arises, pause and handle that directly. ‘Stuck’ is a sense of alienation, a non-flow, a lack of vitality that may seem familiar; it often manifests with a verbal string, such as: ‘People are like this to me’, or, ‘I’m in this stuck situation’, or, ‘I’m this kind of a person’, or, ‘If only I could get what I don’t have, then…’ The setting is beyond one’s power to change (‘always, other, never’ are common words) but there’s an inner pressure to get out of it. This pressure makes the verbal string long, tortuous, studded with statistics and narratives, and an engrossing monologue for hours of ‘meditation’. It could elicit the kinds of responses that analyze, come up with answers, and allocate blame. And yet with all that ‘knowledge’ you still feel impotent. This is because this kind of knowledge comes from a mind that has adopted the systems that disempower it: the expert analyst, the expert coach, the expert lawyer and judge; the intelligence base of the developed world. Dependence on these is the norm in a dissociated society; and it makes you feel stupid. So these responses can’t get rid of the stuck place, because the stuck place is just the lock, or the closure, of your own natural intelligence. Only you can unlock that.

Natural intelligence comes with the piece of nature that we’re born with, our body – within a context that it participates in, even if it’s challenging (which is why people feel great climbing mountains). The intelligence is in the living gestalt, not in your knees. So handle the verbal string and ask: ‘What’s the overall feel of this?’ And: ‘How is my body now?’ You may feel energized in your head or constricted in your chest or abdomen: feel that fully and stay with it, returning to it every time that the verbal string takes you out with advice, analysis and blame. When your system finally simply feels the pain of the dissociated state  (it’s the direct feeling beneath ‘I don’t belong here,’ ‘I’m inadequate ...’) allow the body to respond. It knows how to handle pain and pleasure, energies and impulses; how to hold them and how to let them go. It knows release.

But to get that embodied sense to be fluent and expressive is what the foundational work is about.  Get earthy and be with trees and birds and other forms of life; learn to chant, to connect the heart-mind to the body through voice; practise generosity (time, attention, service) for relational health. It’s all simple hands-on stuff. That’s why it works.