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Loving yourself where you are right now

This week we continue with the theme of compassion. Since leaving the monastery and being open to romantic relationships I’ve realised just how much the longing to be held and loved comes from the unheard parts of my being looking for comfort. The less I hold these parts of myself the more they look out for another to provide that comfort. But then I have the dilemma that any love I am offering is not unconditional, it is based very much on the condition “if I am kind to you you will love and hold me”. It is the attitude of a child who is trying to fix its pain, not realising how controlling or manipulative this attitude might become. If I want truly to be able to love another, I am starting to learn that first I have to love myself. I have heard this said so many times, but to start to feel it is something new and makes me realise that if I want to meet another as an adult rather than as a child and be held in a mutual and mature relationship, whether that be with friends or a partner, then I need to learn to hold and embrace all that is here in me, including the fear that comes up when I start to enter into a closer relationship!

After last week’s class I was given a delayed Christmas present, Pema Chodron’s ‘A Guide to Compassionate Living’. It was one of those synchronistic moments as I started to read the opening pages as she spoke with such eloquence about themes I had been thinking about recently and wanted to bring to the group. The opening couple of pages are so beautiful I’ll share them here in a slightly abridged form:

“We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves – the heavy duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds – never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time the warmth and brilliance is right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.

When we hear about compassion, it naturally brings up working with others. The reason we’re often not there for others – whether our child or our mother or someone who is insulting us or who frightens us – is that we’re not there for ourselves. There are whole parts of ourselves that are so unwanted that whenever they begin to come up we run away.

Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we are in. Yet if we can experience the moment we’re in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice.

Only to the degree that we’ve gotten to know our personal pain, only to the degree that we’ve related to our pain at all, will we be fearless enough, and enough of a warrior to be willing to feel the pain of others. To that degree we will be able to take on the pain of others because we will have discovered that their pain and our pain are not different.

However, to do this, we need all the help we can get…..”

The rest of her book is then a discussion of how we can learn to be with our own pain and hold that of others.

In this week’s class we’ll explore both how to hold our own experience with love and compassion and how to extend this out to others who may be suffering. In this way compassion reminds us that we are not alone, that thorough our suffering we can

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Compassion and the loving heart

This week we turn to the second of the Divine Abiding meditations, compassion: the heart’s response to suffering.

Compassion (Karuna)

Here one opens the heart to its capacity to be with suffering (one’s own and others) rather than run from it or sentimentalise and feel pity. It is the wish for others to be free from suffering whilst also acknowledging that for some there is suffering and to be able to be with that and wish them well. 

Each divine abiding meditation starts by connecting to loving kindness and then bringing this loving kindness into contact with a person who represent the emotion to be evoked. In this practice we turn our attention of our heart to someone we know who is suffering. This is not in order to feel sad or distressed by their suffering but to allow a gentle well-wishing to arise in our heart for them as we wish them to be free from suffering and to find whatever support and nurture they need in order to help with this. We are feeling with them, not feeling sorry for them.

The near and far enemy of compassion:

Far enemy: cruelty

Near enemy: pity – feeling superior and looking down on one who is suffering rather than feeling with them and seeing that their and one’s own suffering are of the same nature.

As the song goes, “into each life some rain must fall”. This meditation is a gentle acknowledgement that there is suffering in this world and gives a means of staying present to it. It can be especially helpful as a way of staying present to our own suffering when it arises. Rather than feeling we are failing when we experience sadness or emotional pain this practice gives us permission to feel and embrace what is there, even if it is difficult. We trust that there is a love within us that can hold whatever difficulty is there.

Jeff Foster gives beautiful expression to this in one of his reflections:

Your sadness doesn’t say, “Please fix me, heal me, or release me”. It doesn’t say, “Please get rid of me, numb yourself to me, pretend I’m not here”. It certainly doesn’t say, “Please get enlightened so I can die!”.

Sadness does not come to punish you, or reveal to you what a ‘spiritual failure’ you are. Sadness is not a sign that you are unevolved or far from healing, awakening, enlightenment, even peace. The presence of sadness is not an indication that you’ve done something wrong. 

Sadness only whispers, “May I come in? I am tired, I long for rest”. And you reply, “But sadness, I don’t know how to allow you in!”
And sadness replies, “It’s okay. You don’t need to know. I’m already in”.
And we bow to sadness then, we recognise how it’s already allowed in, how there’s enough room in us for sadness, how we are not ‘the sad one’, not contained within sadness, but the room for sadness, its space, its home, its salvation, its loving embrace; not as a goal, but as our nature – consciousness itself, already free.

Don’t heal yourself from sadness; let sadness heal you. Let it show you the way when you have forgotten. Let it reveal to you the mysteries of love. Let it remind you of your vast heart, your refusal to split off from any part of your ancient Self, that bigger Happiness you danced when you were young.

Your pain, your sorrow, your doubts, your longings,
your fearful thoughts: they are not mistakes,
and they aren’t asking to be ‘healed’.
They are asking to be held. Here, now, lightly,
In the loving, healing arms of present awareness…

Jeff Foster

In this week’s class we’ll explore how to rest into this sense of the vast love that simply is, and how from that place we can hold our own and others sadness or pain without feeling we have to fix it or fearing being overwhelmed by it. Many of us will have had experiences as we were growing up that gave rise to trauma of some sort. For me this was around my birth and early years.

When I was born my mother was sedated and remained so for 24 hours after my birth, during which time I was in an incubator.  Then she followed the advice of the 1970s of leaving the baby to cry without attending to them so that they would learn that crying would not bring attention.  For me this meant being left in the pram at the end of the garden! Last weekend I was on a retreat where I had a physical memory of how this felt.  The coldness, the desperate wish to be touched, and the feeling of having abandoned hope, of surrendering to the sense of having been abandoned. Then I felt the warmth of lying on my mother, of feeding and feeling safe. As the retreat went on I also felt the pain of feeling abandoned by my father and I realised that these things although distant in time are actually right here, right now in my body. They influence how I think and feel and act. The little me that looks out so desperately for touch and love that I scare away any man who this little self sees as being the one to give me this by being too demanding and instantaneous in his affections and desire for love! The confusion of wanting intimacy and love but fearing it due to the experience of my mother being both there and totally absent. Relationship became an ambivalent place of both warmth and abandonment.

I’m starting to explore how to hold this younger self and his pain and fear with compassion and in this Mondays class I’ll be exploring with you how we can hold what is there with love rather than try to fix it or make it go away. This is still work in progress for me, something I’m exploring since my retreat so I can’t offer answers, but can share the process. What I was left with from the retreat was what I’ll finish with here.  Beneath and around and before and after all of the pain of this self I call Nick, all of the thoughts and mental activity,  is a vast love that simply is. It was a beautiful experience of bliss and total love that is there ready to hold whatever pain there is: but this requires us to dive into our pain and embrace it rather than fight it.

The Loving Heart – the core of skilful emotions

I hope you are well and surviving the onslaught of wind and rain!  With it being cold, wet and nasty outside over this next month the focus of the class will be on cultivating a warm and loving heart!  Regulars will be  familiar with the Loving Kindness meditation but this is one of a set of four meditations for cultivating skilful emotions called the Brahma Viharas, or Divine Abidings. In traditional Buddhism it is said that to cultivate these states is to make one’s mind like those of the gods and lead to rebirth in the heaven realm. Whilst Buddhism does not teach that there is a creator God, it is said that those with refined mental states may be reborn in a god realm of pure consciousness and live there until the skillfull actions that led to that rebirth run out and they return to the human realm. Whilst we may no longer believe in gods and rebirth into different realms, we all know the hell of jealousy, envy and  hatred and how changing our state of mind changes our experience of the world. The Divine Abiding meditations counteract unskillful states of mind and instead cultivate skilful emotions.

Over the next few weeks we’ll explore each of the Divine Abiding meditation at the end of the evening. The four divine abiding are: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. I’ve also included the Pali terms for any of you who would like to look then up in more detail. This week we’ll look in more detail at the core meditation, Loving Kindness.

Loving Kindness (Metta)

The Loving Kindness practice we usually finish with is said to be the root of the divine abiding meditations, for the other emotions are what arise when Loving Kindness comes into contact with the varieties of human experience. Each divine abiding meditation starts by connecting to loving kindness and then bringing this loving kindness into contact with a person who represents the emotion to be evoked.

Each meditation is said to have a near and far enemy.  The near enemy is an unskilful mental state that undermines the skilful state being cultivated whilst being mistaken as the skilful emotion itself.  The far enemy is the opposite of what is being cultivated.

The near and far enemy of Loving kindness:
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Far enemy: ill- will

Near enemy: selfish affection

With loving kindness the clear unskillful emotion we might feel for another is ill-will or hatred. The practice is intended to help us let go of this and wish others well.  The near enemy is more subtle. We know when we’ve fallen into it as our response to someone backing away or not showing the gratitude we would expect is to think something like “after all I have done for you!” Rather than being an unconditional giving with a sense of the other person as a free individual, we are giving out of a desire to feel good, or get gratification from hearing how grateful the other is for our kindness. It’s giving in order to fill our own loneliness or emptiness rather than out of a wish for the other to be well and happy independent of us.

The Buddha described loving Kindness as being like the love a mother feels of r a her new born child – it is spontaneous and generous, loving the other  for who they are rather than with any motive of personal gain.

The Buddha’s teaching on Loving Kindness is contained in a scripture called the Karaniyametta Sutta.  There are various translations.  Below is a rendering that I pulled together though reading a number of these an choosing the translations that most resonated with me. I hope you enjoy reading it!

The Karaniyametta Sutta

One who wants to attain the Peace of Liberation cultivates these qualities: be gentle and polite, honest and harmonious in speech, practice living with integrity and honour, live simply, contentedly and with gratitude in your heart, leading an upright life [1] Living thus be free from being covetous, conceited, and from being caught up in distractions.

Avoid doing anything unworthy that will be disapproved of by people of good conscience.

Whilst meditating contemplate thus:

May all beings be happy and safe, and may their hearts be filled with joy.

Whatever living beings there may be; whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, the great and the mighty, medium, short or small, the seen and the unseen, those living near and far away, those born or to be born, may all beings be at ease.

Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or hatred wish harm upon another.

Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart let one cherish all living beings: spreading upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths, outwards and unbounded freed from hatred and ill-will.

Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying down, for as long as you are awake maintain this mindfulness of love in your heart. This is the noblest way of living and is known as like living in heaven right here and now.

By not holding to fixed views, greed and harmful sensual desires, the pure hearted one lets go of limiting self-views and is spontaneously ethical. Living thus you will certainly transcend Birth and Death to awaken to the Bliss of Liberation.

 

Notes:

1. The Five Precepts are refered to in the sutta as ‘’living an upright life.’’ The five Precepts form the ethical base of Lay Buddhist practitioners throughout Asia and are often taken on by people in the West wanting to give an extra focus to their meditation practice.

The Five Precepts:

1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.

4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.

5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

The Metta Sutta is found in the Suttanipäta, vv 143-152. Often referred to as the Karanïya Metta Sutta, it was taught by the Buddha to a group of forest monks who were disturbed by tree spirits. He urged them to practise loving- kindness towards all beings. Then those spirits tolerated their presence happily.

Sources:

Amaravati Chanting book, Amaravati publications (1994)

Thich Nhat Hanh, translation contained in a collection of translations of the Karaniya metta sutta published privately by Dharmacari Sunanda (1996)

Dharmacari Ratnaprabha

Humour and the spiritual life

In my last post I was reflecting on the phrase ‘follow your bliss’ and how humour and joy are part of  what supports us in our practice. Someone sent me a link to a video recently which made me laugh a lot. I’m reminded how important humour is and how easily in the ‘spiritual life’ one can take on a rather serious demeanour.

A friend of mine is a Sufi and leads laughter workshops. He’s always so happy! And if I think about it the people I know who seem most deeply connected to their practice are also the happiest people I know. My Abbot Ajahn Sumedho would always have a smile and a laugh bubbling not far beneath the surface, likewise other friends in the monastery both monk and lay practitioners. A friend of mine said to me recently he wonders if I need to laugh more. He has a point that my first Abbot who gave me my monastic name might agree with! My monastic name was Bodhinando – the Bliss of Awakening/Enlightenment. I always took it as a reminder that with liberation comes bliss – not a dull annihilation. So perhaps opening to joy and bliss now is a little window into the bliss of perfect freedom.

The video below is great in that it is both a spoof of a spiritual delivery and message and yet also works as a meditation! It’s a great reminder how not to take the rituals and routines of spiritual teachings too seriously. And perhaps at times such humour and language might even be more effective than ‘spiritual’ instructions! If you are offended by mild swearing do not watch!

NSFW

Follow your bliss – keeping new year resolutions by finding what draws the heart to enjoying that new way of being

I remember reading the phrase “follow your bliss” at one time and it has stuck with me ever since.  My Buddhist name is Bodhinando, which means the bliss of awakening, so I guess my teacher was trying to tell me something! I always had a tendency to be a bit serious and dedicated…….his choice of name pointed to freedom being a state of playful bliss rather than earnest endeavour!

I often think of the phrase “follow your bliss”, especially at New Year. As we make resolutions and start the year there can be a sense of earnestly trying to make good those sincere and dutiful resolutions.  But where is the bliss?  Where is there the sense of being drawn to an action that makes the heart quiver with joy rather than a dull sense of having to do the right thing? We may have very worthy goals: stop smoking, go to the gym, get fit and go to mindfulness classes! But if these are done with a sense of dull duty there is little to draw the heart to them with a quiver of excitement.  Instead they hang heavy on us, in the same way as the childhood duty of writing letters of thanks to distant relatives after Christmas was a chore rather than a delight!

With each of your goals for 2016 consider what is the joy that is contained in them if you were to achieve the goal?  Rather than the negating of an action – stopping smoking – what is there that you feel drawn towards, excited by, that gives a sense of vitality and aliveness? Feeling healthier, waking up feeling fresh and alert, feeling your body cleansing itself of toxins? Find your own sense of bliss in whatever it is you have resolved to do and follow that, rather than simply negate an action that you feel is bad for you.

For Campbell this idea of following your bliss was central to a happy life.  What is it that gives you a sense of joy and excitement and how might you make that the hub of your life? For him it was the joy of exploring mythology and philosophy.  For others it could be the pleasure of creating something with their hands – an artist, crafts man or builder, or the pleasure of following a dream. A friend of mine once said that those who are happiest in life tend to be doing work as an adult which they enjoyed as a child.  He is a garden designer, and gardening was his passion as a boy.  He followed his bliss and made it his career.  For others it might not be work, but a hobby or volunteering role that connects them to their bliss.  As you enter 2016 perhaps take a moment to consider what did you enjoy doing as a child?  Have you become separated from following that spontaneous bliss that the child found easy to connect with and how might you bring back a connection to that now?

I’ve included a video of Campbell being interviewed below in which he says more about the idea of following your bliss.  Below is a short extract from the interview:

“If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track
that has been there all the while waiting for you
and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.

When you can see that, you begin to meet people
who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you.
I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid,
and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else”

To see the video click here

Happy New Year! May 2016 bring you joy and happiness!

I returned from the Loving Men retreat this evening. It started Friday evening and never have a few days felt so full and rewarding! I feel nourished and loved and have had more hugs and loving touch in a few days than in the last few months! There were 80 men together engaging in workshops, meeting for morning yoga and meditation and exploring how to let go of the defences which stop us from reaching out for touch and love. I feel blessed to have had this opportunity to be on such an amazing weekend and to have entered the New year with so much joy and sense of community. Over the few days we were together I saw how what we can be as gay and bi men is a loving community of men, caring for one another, softening, exploring, playing – and being fabulous! There were so many skills and talents shared over the weekend – workshops on dance, creating vision boards for the year ahead, an evening of drag for those who wanted to get dressed up.  There were massage classes, voice improvisation sessions, an introduction to shamanic healing and so much more.

One seminar I found particularly useful was on exploring staying with the ‘maybe’ in making a choice in order to be clearer with if the decision is going to be a no or yes. The session was introduced with poem by America poet William Stafford:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

How can we give clear signals, yes, no or maybe if we are as yet decided? The maybe is a place of exploration. Rather feeling I have to rush to a clear yes or no, I may want to leave the space open for exploration. Rather than feel compelled to please another by saying yes or just saying no in order to escape the discomfort of having to negotiate an outcome when I feel uncertain if I can express the maybe it opens up the possibility for discussion, for exploring what would make a difference. Doing this workshop made me aware of how often in the past I have run past the maybe into a yes or no and have later regretted not talking over my concerns or wishes before agreeing to a course of action or turning it down.

The maybe can create a place of open discussion. One is saying that one is open to the possibility, but there are issues there that need to be addressed and depending on how this discussion goes the decision might be a yes or no. If in contrast one has a clear sense that it is a no but wants to avoid seeming to reject the other person it may seem easier to give a maybe. At such times it might be kinder to give a clear no rather than seem to leave the possibility open and the waiting and hoping for a yes that will never come.

As part of the session we thought of a question we had about an area in our life where we were wanting some clarity. With two other men we then explored the yes, no and maybe position. As the one asking th question I remained as the maybe, in a space of not having made a decision either way. One man then represented ‘yes’, the other ‘no’. I then moved them around the room, placing them nearer or further away from me, going up to one and then another, and simply staying with how it felt to be with the yes or the no. At first I thought I wished I had signed up to another seminar as I couldn’t see how this was going to work! Human chess! But it had an amazingly powerful effect. As I looked at the person representing no I saw and felt everything connected with that decision and way of living my life. As I looked at the person representing yes I saw and felt the consequences of applying that decision to my life. As a result I came to a decision based on the sensations in my body as much as thought. The decision was to go with the yes. If you don’t have a couple of men available to move around your room you can also use two objects, deciding which represent yes and which no!

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