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Posts tagged ‘compassion’

Mindfulness or Heartfulness

Do not try to become anything.
Do not make yourself into anything.
Do not be a meditator.
Do not become enlightened.
When you sit, let it be.
When you walk, let it be.
Grasp at nothing.
Resist nothing.
If you haven’t wept deeply,
you haven’t begun to meditate.Ajahn Chah, Thai Forest Monk (1918-1992)

I first read this quote some years ago but it was only recently that I came across this version with the final sentence: “If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate.” I was reminded of this quote on visiting the monastery where I used to live last weekend. One of the monks was talking about the importance of listening into our bodies and opening to our emotions as a source of wisdom, rather than having an intellectual understanding of our experience. Reading the first part of the quote is inspiring, but it may support the sort of view I had when I started to meditate that I needed to escape from what I was feeling, as if there was some basic true identity that could press emergency release and be blasted out in the life shuttle of Enlightenment from the mother ship of ego, suddenly floating free and blissful in the enormity of space.

What this quote above and the monk’s teaching at the weekend emphasise is that practice is about turning in and feeling fully: letting go through embracing, the core koan of our practice! A koan is a Japanese Zen teaching phrase that is seemingly contradictory, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “what moves – the flag or the wind?”. The koan is known only when the rational mind finally surrenders and stops trying to make any logical sense of it. In the same way the logical mind tends to think in black and white: reject what is not wanted, then I’ll feel good. Hold onto what makes me feel good so I feel even better.

This tendency of the mind to grasp at, or reject, thoughts about the past or the future or the present moment and to fall into a sense of an identity that seems fixed and real for the time it is there, but evaporates like a mist to be replaced by another identity and then another as the day progresses is the basis of Ajahn Chah’s teaching above: mindfulness is the art of resting into that gentle allowing and knowing that notices without attaching or rejecting. But as well as this noticing it is also a knowing that fully participates in the experience and fully feels what is there, whilst not getting lost in it or rejecting it. In this sense the awareness that arise from mindfulness practice has been described as a participant-observer, as opposed to the dissociated observer that looks on from a distance. This is an important distinction, as the tendency to associate mindfulness with looking on from a distance only adds to our separation from being fully present in our life.

This may in part be due to the use of the word mindfulness to describe this way of being. We associate mind with the brain and so think of mindfulness as looking down from our head or from a discrete intelligence that is separate from what is being observed. Perhaps it helps if we look at the Buddhist word for mind, chitta, which means both mind and heart. So we could as easily talk of heartfulness instead of mindfulness. In this practice we are learning to hold all of our experience in an open heart, that observes and feels and witnesses.

The awareness that arises from the practice of mindfulness was described by the Buddha as “the middle way”.  It is the middle way between the extremes of grasping and rejection, between wanting to exist forever as an identity (grasping onto what we are enjoying) and wanting not to exist (resisting an experience and wanting it to be over). Mindfulness has been described as the art of feeling an emotion without being the emotion: feeling sad without being sad, feeling happy without grasping at happiness and wanting it to last forever, but instead enjoying it as it arises and allowing it to pass as another emotion arises to be held. Or bringing compassion to a difficult emotion as it arises to be greeted by awareness at the door of perception. In this way we come fully into being alive in the present moment, rather than dwelling in thoughts about the past or anticipating the future or not wanting the present moment to be as it is.

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These thoughts about past and future often arise unwilled by conscious thought and a Harvard study found that we spend around 47% of our time is spent in distracted thinking.  This means nearly half of our waking life is spent not being present or fully awake. If we are spending half of our life caught in such unproductive thinking patterns it’s not surprising we can experience a sense of frustration, sadness and worry! It’s almost as if the thoughts are thinking themselves and we are just swept along in the flood!

From popular ideas about meditation it would be easy to think that mindfulness is about switching off – stopping these unwanted thoughts through a deliberate effort of will to silence the mind and find peace. After all if it is these thoughts that make us feel bad then surely we need to stop them to feel good? This is the ‘doing mode’ approach to the dilemma: trying to fix the problem by an act of will. The ‘being mode’ approach is to open to what is there, to hold it with curiosity, to feel into it and allow without getting swept away in the thought. As we start to meditate we may feel discouraged when, a few minutes in, we’re beset by thoughts and distraction. Then the mind starts its commentary – “this is impossible”, “I can’t stop thinking – this isn’t working”, “I’m no good at this”, “Perhaps if I go away to a monastery I’ll do it but not in my busy life”. And so we tick it off as something we tried but that didn’t work.

Whilst we may have moments of the mind being still and calm as we meditate the main value of mindfulness practice is the ability to learn to be present despite the busyness of the mind rather than mindfulness being a means of stopping thought: thus mindfulness is the ability to be present with our mind as it is, not how we think it should be. This may mean mindfully attending to the breath whilst also being aware of a busy, worried or anxious mind.

My teacher Ajahn Sumedho would often comment, the thought “I don’t want any thoughts” is simply adding another thought into the already busy mind! The paradox is that a practice intended to bring peace actually just creates another self-identity: the one wanting to be a calm meditator! And so we sit with thoughts like: “I hope I can get calm”, “when will I be peacefull”, “I was peaceful in my last sit I hope I have that experience again”……Instead through mindfulness we learn to bring non-judgemental attention to what is here right now: noticing thought but then avoiding the duality of getting pulled in to it or rejecting it. In this way mindfulness practice is more about embracing what is there and holding it in the heart of awareness. It is not a process of dissociating and rising above thoughts and feelings but of being fully present to them, to how it feels in the body to experience them and to witness how they arise, stay a while and then pass away, which may open us to a deep sense of peace that isn’t dependant on silence or absence of thoughts but that can exist within the busyness of mental activity. It’s like finding the calm eye in the middle of the hurricane when one had spent one’s life trying to stop the hurricane.

The eye of the hurricane: knowing

As you engage with this mindful presence there can be a sense of ‘knowing’ that is a gentle witnessing of what is there. This witness is not separate from what is there, but fully engaged, just as the awareness that arises whilst you pay attention to the sensations in your toes as you do the body scan is not a separate witness, but comes into being as a result of meeting the sensations. In this way we shift beyond the duality of observer and observed when there is simply a unified experience of sensation and that which knows the sensation. In the same way with thoughts, when we shift from an idea of a separate intelligence that is looking on at all these thoughts and instead know that our sense of identity is arising from witnessing the thoughts as they arise there can be a subtle sense of calm that arises. The knowing itself is calm, even if what it knows is busy and distracted thoughts.

A traditional teaching metaphor for thoughts in meditation is that they are like clouds in the sky. When we think we need to get rid of thoughts to be calm it is like the sky thinking it needs to get rid of the clouds in order to be the sky. The sky always has the nature to be clear and untouched by whatever storm is blowing through it. In the same way this capacity to know is always present, always clear, but by focusing on the clouds of thought we are like the sky that has forgotten itself and instead thinks it is the storm clouds. The sky does not need to destroy the clouds to feel its open spacious and clear nature, so in the same way we do not need to destroy thoughts to rest into our own clear, open and calm capacity to be present, to be the knowing.

I look forward to exploring this together again this Monday.

Let It Be

Ajhan Chah was my teacher’s teacher. He was a Thai monk who left the urban monastery where he was ordained and went to live in the forest to follow the Buddha’s example and teaching in as authentic way as was possible. At the time in the late 19th and early 20th century this forest movement was radical. It was a rejection of the excepted belief that Enlightenment was no longer possible, that a monk could only hope to live a good life but not find the freedom the Buddha taught as this was thought to be a degenerate age which no longer supported the arising of insight. Instead these monks followed their hearts and their conviction that by diligently following the Buddha’s example, going into the forest, meditating and observing their own minds and hearts they could find freedom from suffering.

Initially doing this for themselves, as their reputation as wise beings started to spread communities grew up around them as others went to live in the forest with them, to learn from them and be trained. Thus it was that my teacher Ajahn Sumedho, an American who had found his way to Thailand in the 60s, went to live with a group of Westerners who had gathered around Ajhan Chah.

I never met Ajhan Chah as he died before I was living in the monastery.  By all accounts he was a man full of laughter and joy. Those that I have met who seem more free all share this quality of joy and a lightness of heart, whilst having a deep empathy for the suffering they see in others.
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The quote at the top of this essay is one I often refer to in my own practice and when I teach. It says so much in so few words. The way one seeks to become something, even when looking for freedom: the seeking to be the one who is free, rather than resting into the freedom that is here. His simple encouragement to “let it be” resonated with me when I first read it: no longer fighting how things are or regretting the past or worrying about the future, but instead allowing for the simple truth of: “this is how it is, it’s like this”. Whenever I met with Ajhan Sumedho he would respond to my anxieties and fretting worries with this simple reply “this is how it is”.

But it was only this month that I saw this version of the quote.  Before it ended with “resist nothing”. Which is a very clear encouragement to be open to what is present without judgement or favour. But the whole message of this quote is given deeper meaning by the last sentence:

“If you haven’t wept deeply, you haven’t begun to meditate”

This struck me in the gut as I read it and makes me wonder in some respects if I have even begun to meditate! I have certainly not wept deeply.  I have stayed on the surface of the ocean of worry and despair, but only because this is a familiar and comfortable place to be. It is a habit pattern of the mind that is known and strangely comfortable to inhabit. But how would it be to dive in? To feel fully?

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The two wings of Awakening: Wisdom and Compassion

Something I have realised recently is that the teaching consists off two wings: wisdom and compassion. With only one wing one cannot fly. Both are needed, but it is easy to focus on one more than the other depending on one’s tendencies.

Wisdom sees that this is all passing, that there is no permanent self and thus no-one to suffer. There is only this moment arising right now, born of conditions that give rise to it. Allowing those conditions to subside this experince will pass and in seeing this one sees that all experience is empty of any inherent, permanent self or ego. All of this is known by Awareness, which is a dispassionate presence that witnesses without being impacted by what is seen, like the sky holding the clouds.

But the Buddha always taught that Enlightenment is composed of both Wisdom and Compassion. That one on its own is not enough to give rise to liberation, nor is it a full expression of freedom. Wisdom without compassion can be a cold knowing that does not feel the pain of humanity and dismisses it as foolish weakness.

Compassion opens to, embraces, holds and is tender to the suffering that is here in one’s own heart and the hearts of others. Compassion without Wisdom though could be sentimental or get lost in overwhelming feelings of sorrow for the pain in the world or a desire to fix others.

Ajhan Chah’s last sentence suggests to me the importance of allowing oneself to feel fully. To open to being fully with the sorrow, the pain and hurt that this human life can hold. Whilst also maintaining the Wisdom element of dispassion that knows not to grasp at this as being me or mine or a permanent and fixed state.

How to do this?

I wish I knew. Then I would be what my About pointed to when he gave me my Buddhist name. As a monk I was known as Bodhinando, which translates as the Bliss of Enlightenment. I was very far from Bliss when he gave me the name and at times it feels I am no nearer now! But it is a reminder that Awakening is Bliss, that my true nature is freedom and joy.

The Buddhist training always required one to take a teacher, a guide whose insight was a little deeper than one’s own. They did not have to be a fully liberated being, but one who could give one enough guidance, encouragement and perspective to help one rest more deeply in to freedom. The Buddha went so far as to say that such friendship was the whole of the spiritual life. As a guide and teacher, or spiritual friend in Buddhist terminology, they could see one more clearly than one might see oneself and through their guidance and encouragement one would come to see something that by simply observing one’s own habit partners of thinking and behaviour might never become clear. As such the modern equivalent to a wise teacher or spiritual friend is a therapist.

I have recently been looking at various opportunities for therapy and one option has now arisen for starting in April. When I was at the monastery there were two camps: the monks who believed meditation and the monastic training was enough, and those who saw therapy as a way to deepen the practice and open more to allowing a shift to take place. I was in therapy for much of the time I was in the monastery as my Abbot believed it to support the training. But since leaving I have not been able to continue this until now.  But I do feel ready for a shift, to face the patterns of thoughts and feelings with support and to see how they can be held, felt , seen and allowed to shift into a place of greater freedom.

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Healing in Relationship

As I often quote: “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship” and if I am to allow myself to explore connecting deeper into my heart I hope that by entering into a relationship with a therapist it will help me to feel more deeply, to recognise the patterns of feeling and thinking that are so close they seem to be me, but are constructs, created over time and maintained simply out of habit rather than because they are true.

I often feel sad. And often wake up feeling that I want to cry. The sadness of life, its fragility and uncertainty: this life “that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”

I asked Jeff Foster about this experience of waking up with a sense of sadness. He had been talking about his own experience of this in the past and how he found that resisting it did not make it go away, instead he needed to fully allow that it was there, as an experience. But the shift was of seeing that it it could be held with love. To see that sadness, that crying deeply, does not then mean I am a sad person, only that in this being there is a feeling of sadness….and it can be held. The risk of applying only Wisdom to this is that we try to find ways to never have to feel sad, as we label it as wrong, but if we bring in Compassion then we fly on the two wings of liberation: Wisdom and Compassion. The loving heart that feels deeply and the wise knowing that lets it go. But to let go one first needs to feel, and hence to be ready to weep deeply in meditation….or with one’s therapist or a good friend who can hold it without fear or judgement.

Surfing the Waves of Suffering

I woke up today feeling sad and scared. I’m waiting for a few things to become clear which is acting as a reminder of how life is uncertain and unpredictable. For the last year I have been teaching mindfulness courses at a London council to their staff. The 8 week courses have gone well and I have received constantly good feedback from participants. But there is a requirement that any ongoing work at the council has to go out to competitive tender so I had to submit my application along with others for the interviewing process……..The interviews took place yesterday and I was not invited.

This brings up the feeling of having failed – which objectively, as the task was to be invited to an interview, I have – but then this becomes a feeling in my gut that I am a failure. I feel slightly sick right now. And that belief is not true but it is corrosive. If I just stay with the objective fact: I submitted an application, I was not invited to an interview. I can then reflect on what is needed to make any future submission better able to communicate my skills and abilities in a way that an admin team would consider interviewing me.

I like the way the Buddha describes our human experience: life is like traveling in a cart with an ill fitting wheel. As comfortable as you try to get on the journey there is an unexpected jolt and a shudder at irregular intervals to throw it all into confusion.

I’m back where I was a year ago in terms of wondering where I shall find work and income. But I have a years experience of teaching and feel a confidence in myself I did not a year ago. As well as uncertainty about work other life patterns are presenting themselves in different arenas, especially dating and relationships. Jung said “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” It feels as if some things are rising into consciousness now through various life situations. And it’s hard to sit with that, but I know it is needed or these patterns of behaviour and thinking/feeling will just keep playing out on the stage of myself, with me as the “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage”…….I just hope that, unlike Macbeth, I do not finish my life believing that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

As I sat in meditation this morning all I could feel at first was fear. And then sadness. Then I dropped into, or was embraced by, a deeper stillness that was calm and nourishing. But held within that gentle embrace was a hard fist of fear in my belly/solar plexus. Forty minutes of breathing into that and letting it be has opened it, but only so that I now feel it more fully. I find these feelings are like waves, and right now it feels like a huge one is rolling over me. It needs to be felt. And I know it will pass. But I hope to learn from it. But it’s so hard to welcome something that feels so hard to be with. However, I do believe Rumi when he invites us to “stand at the door laughing” and to welcome whatever difficulties arise as a guest to be treated honourably – to be held in awareness without judgement and allowed to be rather than trying to destroy the unwanted emotions as they come knocking at the door asking to be let in.

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I’m reminded to reflect on how dependant we all are on each other, how we are all part of this interconnected web of interactions. It’s this teaching of interconnectedness that drew me to Buddhism. The teaching that we are not islands unto ourselves, but one point in an interconnected matrix. My actions impact on others, whilst the decisions of others reverberate through the matrix and impact on me. One month I have a seemingly secure employment, circumstances change, staff change and a new agenda comes in and that security evaporates like mist.

I’m just grateful for my meditation practice, it is the one place where I can drop into an experience of freedom and joy that does not depend on anything from outside to create or sustain it. And thank you to friends who offer so much kindness and support. I was touched by the responses yesterday and to a message I sent out recently to the meditation group when people shared their own experiences. It reminds me that this is what unites us – living in a world that is uncertain, unsure and full of insecurity. May we all find our way to the bliss of freedom from suffering.

The Carefree Heart

A metaphor that is often used by meditation teachers is of thoughts being like clouds in the sky.  It can be easy to hear this and forget to feel what it is suggesting. When I was a teen I heard the lyrics “into each life some rain must fall but too much has fallen in mine” I started singing it to myself as it resonated with my melancholy mood as a teen. And at times in my life it does feel as if I’ve been standing under a huge rain cloud and that life just seemed wet and miserable!

I was lucky to meet teachers who had had their own experience of this and who had recognised how to liberate their hearts. Knowing such people and feeling the sense of carefree joy that they exuded was always an inspiration. They could feel difficult emotions.  I know that from talking to them.  But they did not become a person lost in those emotions.

There’s a teaching that one can feel sad without being sad. If sadness (or any other difficult emotion) is here then it’s what is knocking at the door of awareness, asking to be let in to the heart. It can be welcomed. Held. Seen. Allowed. Whilst not merging with it as an identity. Not getting lost in that script. Taking one’s role in the familiar drama of oneself. Instead a feeling comes. It makes itself at home for a while. And it passes. It brings its own learning and healing if it is honoured and not made wrong.

Whilst there may be a state of being where one might be dispassionate through not clinging to the idea of self, for the rest of us to try to artificially create that state by denying what one is feeling most likely will only lead to it finding some other way to make itself know: for as Yung says, “What we resit persists, what we fight we get more of”.

A more workable model of dispassion may be finding that middle place where we neither get lost in the emotion nor are we pushing it away. Allowing this moment to be perfect. Whether it be an experience of joy. Sadness. Fear. Or whatever.

This brings us back to the clouds in the sky.  My teacher Ajahn Sumedho would always remind us that that which is Aware of something is not the thing of which it is aware. The sky holds the clouds as Awareness holds whatever thoughts and feelings are arising and taking birth in this moment. But the sky is never the cloud. The sky can only be the space in which the clouds take birth and dissolve.   Even when the clouds are thick and no hint of blue is there, they can only exist because of the space of the sky. And that space of open, free and non-attached clarity is still there even when filled with the clouds of worry, regret, fear, etc.. The clouds are temporary appearances in the vastness of the sky. But we can so easily get absorbed in the clouds and forget there ever was a sky.

In Buddhism it is taught that our true nature is like the sky. It is unborn and uncreated and never touched by all of the travails of the ego mind. Like the screen of a cinema it allows whatever drama there is to be projected onto it, seeming to be the drama but in fact never touched by it. And when the drama stops, there is simply the clear screen still as immaculate as it was before the drama spread across it.

As I reflect more on this it gives me a sense of softening.  The struggle to be free is part of the drama of the mind caught in the belief in linear time: “one day I will be free, but I’m not free right now”. This is like a cloud thinking one day I will find the sky!

The thought “I have all these problems that have to be solved” is just one of the many clouds scurrying across the sky. But when I truly stop. Breathe. Rest into the moment and into my heart. Then there is a peace. A peace that was so close that it was overlooked in all the looking for peace somewhere else than right here. In this moment. The funny thing is we spend so long trying to find peace. To get the answer to being happy. But the search in the end only leads back to this moment. To seeing that we were never not the sky, but just identified with being the clouds. And when this is felt, there is a moment of the heart being carefree and at peace.  Then the drama of the cloud like mind takes over again. Or takes hold of the experience and tries to own it as an ego experience “the time I had an insight”

I was on a retreat this week end where there was an opening to this sense of peace.  And since the weekend there has continued to be a feeling of a peace that is vibrant yet still. So lovely. Things have started to occur to cloud over this open sky and I can see how my thinking mind wants to get back in the driving seat again – worrying about a concern, desiring that body in the gym changing room, feeling angry with my neighbour…..but it’s a choice: I can let it go, dissolving back into that infinite blue sky of loving awareness that held me….that was me….during the retreat……or I can go into it and experience the mind’s creation – which feels narrower, more ego focused and driven by desire to get or push away rather than rest in the moment.

A daily mindfulness practice is an invitation to drop into this peace that just is, which does not need to be created or found. This moment of allowing and “being the knowing” as a Thai forest monk described it. The ‘knowing’ is calm: the knowing of sadness is not sad, the knowing of anger is not angry – it feels it, senses it, is intricately connected to it, but is also dispassionate, knowing that this movement of the mind is not what it is. It’s like waves rushing across the surface of the ocean, however much they get wiped up into a storm, they never touch the still depth of the ocean. Meditation is like this: knowing the waves for what they are, being fully present to them when choppy or calm, but also resting into the deeper depths of being, the stillness at the heart of the ocean.

Loving All of Ourselves – even the parts we find difficult

Jeff Foster gives a beautiful analogy for how we can learn to relate to our difficult emotions, all those that we have learnt to see as unwanted and unwelcome, bad or shameful – pain, anger, fear, hatred, shame etc.  He talks of them as being like children wandering lost in a storm, when we feel them it is as if they have come knocking at the door asking to be let in, to be held and loved in the embracing arms of awareness. But rather than let them in we turn them away, telling them they are unwelcome: we use affirmations to tell our sadness we are not sad but full of joy, we meditate to feel calm so we don’t have to feel our turmoil, we drink, use drugs, have unaware sex that numbs us to our feelings rather than letting us drop deeper into them….or we watch television, get lost in porn, read, or do crosswords…..some of these things can be purposeful and life affirming, but if used to avoid what we are feeling they become an avoidance strategy as we try to self medicate away the struggle, the loneliness, the sense of disconnect and not being whole.

As we grow up we learn from our parents, teachers and others that we are accepted when we show certain emotions, whilst other emotions are not accepted. We have to be a ‘brave little boy’ or ‘be strong’ etc.  Sometimes the message is clear and stated, sometimes we learn that our expression of certain emotions results in the withdrawal of love or approval and we quickly stop displaying them.  These emotions become the unwanted children in our inner family.  The problem children that have to be kept out of sight, hidden.  And when they come knocking at the door we send them away, or numb ourselves to avoid feeling them.

Mindfulness practice is about opening to all that is here. Learning to sit with equanimity in the middle of the storm of feelings and emotions and finding peace though embracing all that is there, not by running away from it. If my peace is dependant on having calm states of mind and meditations in which there is no mental turmoil then anything that disturbs this will be seen as a threat and will need to be suppressed. The Buddha at the time of his Enlightenment learnt to sit in the middle of the army of tumultuous emotions. Letting them all play out but choosing not to get attached to them by rejecting them or getting lost in them.  In my practice I am inspired by this example.  After years in the monastery of fighting the things I felt I should not feel I’m starting to learn how to allow and embrace whatever is there and hold it with a compassionate care. For all of our emotions are part of our inner family, to praise some and denigrate others has the same effect as preferring one child over another – it creates tension and resentment. The difficult child, the unwanted child plays up more to get our attention.  Thinking it is bad it will be more bad just to play its part!

Remember, the emotions we want to push away and deny are still a part of us, simply wanting to be held and loved.

As we practice mindfulness and reflection it becomes possible to start to notice how the mind is a ‘meaning-making’ machine, that tells stories about the past and the future to try and make sense of life and to learn from the experiences life presents us with. As you attend to the difficult thoughts and emotions arising in your experience this week start to explore holding what is there with a gentle curiosity.  Notice the tendency of the mind to create a drama around whatever it is that is presenting itself.

Here is an example: I send a text to someone I like and want to date and three days later there has been no reply, although I can see they have read it. This quickly escalates: I’ve been rejected…..They don’t like me…..I’m unlovable….what’s wrong with me….will I ever meet anyone….I’m such a failure.  Here we have the ABC model of experience. A – the event, B the interpretations and meaning I place on it and C the thoughts feelings and actions that arise from what I have made it mean:

A: Situation/ event – I send a text to someone I like hoping to arrange a date.  As yet, three days latter, I have not received a reply

B: My interpretation of this – they do not care; I was too much for them, I acted too quickly, appeared too keen; I got it wrong – should have played it cool etc; I’m unlovable; I’ll never meet anyone; I need them and then I’ll be happy.

C: Emotional, physical and volitional reactions to this – I feel sad, lonely, frightened, a failure. I can’t enjoy anything I am doing, I have no hope, I want to cry. My chest feels tight, I feel tearful.

What is happening here is that the initial situation of not receiving a reply has triggered deeply held fears and worries and taken me on the autopilot route to old scripts and the feelings and emotions associated with these. If I continue to think that it is in the other person’s power to take this pain away I then look to the other person to rescue me, “if they  would only text back”, or I get angry with them for making me hurt. And if they do text back – I feel happy…for a minute.  But it hasn’t resolved the underlying wound, the old script that underpins the autopilot and I will always be vulnerable to having that wound agitated again as soon as the reassurance the other person has provided is felt to be withdrawn, or someone else triggers it. In this way my relationship to the other person has nothing to do with our regard and love for them – but is a means for trying to make sure I do not have to feel my pain. If I can hold my pain and make peace with the old scripts – then I can be totally present to my self and to the other.

This does not mean we have to look back and work out why we were wounded or have a memory of some original rejection or emotional wound. We may spontaneously remember such an experience and we then hold that in the present moment. But for now it is enough to just hold the sense of hurting without needing to know why we hurt.  That is why to is so important to come to the physical sensations, as they are what is here now, rather than th ehtoughts about what might have happened or what may happen in the future. Through the body we are able to be with what is playing out here, now in this moment. True, incidents from the past have shaped how we see the world, but right now all I can be with is the feeling that is arising now – holding that with compassion.

Others will have different scripts.  They may have a sense of self worth that means when the person does not text back they think “your loss” and move on. So the situation seems real from our perspective, but what we are interested in doing is looking at how we are choosing a way of telling the story and relating to it, recognising that it is a script whose emotional flavour is shaped by what has conditioned us over time but that this can be let go of in this moment through clear seeing and compassionate holding. Reflecting that the bare facts are: I sent a text three days ago, I have not received a reply.  The rest is unknown, uncertain but we create meaning and, just as with the person in the street exercise, the meaning we create has an impact on our body, our emotions and how we think and act. But often it comes from within our mind and the interpretation we add to the events rather than external factors themselves.

A kinder way of relating to the above scenario is to think: “It’s ok for me to show interest and ask for a date, and it’s ok for them to not want pick this up. I still love myself and I am OK to be here saying what I want. And if it hurts to be rejected, if that is what has happened, then it’s OK to feel sad and I hold that with love as I let the other person go on their way. May I be happy and well. May they be happy and well”

Rather than pushing the difficult emotions away or trying to work out why they are there, one can instead open up to the emotions and welcome them in as part of oneself needing to be held with love.  The meditation attached to this email is taught on the 8 week mindfulness course for turning towards the difficult emotions and holding them with curiosity and love. I hope you find the being with difficulty meditation provides you with an opportunity to befriend any pain you notice in your experience rather than trying to fix it or make it go away. What does it want to tell you? What might you need to say to it that is kind and loving?

The Loving Heart – wisdom, compassion and an open heart

In this week’s blog we return again to the Loving Kindness practice. The Buddha described the well wishing one feels in this practice as being like the love a mother would feel for her only child. The Loving Kindness practice is done without any intention of getting a result, instead what one creates within the space of intention is an opportunity for the heart to open, soften and extend a gentle well wishing out to oneself and others. With the mindfulness of breathing practice, although it has the intention of simply being with the breath, it is much easier for the doing mind to engage with it as an activity: watching the breath I have a simple task – noting when I am attending to the breath and then bringing my attention back when I notice I am no longer focused on the breath. The Loving Kindness Practice can feel more amorphous, less clear cut, harder to grasp – but that’s the point!

When I learnt to meditate I used to alternate loving kindness one day and mindfulness of breathing on the other day. Over time I’ve shifted to mainly choosing mindfulness of breathing. My training in Buddhist insight practices gave mindfulness a greater significance as it is in this practice that one can calm the mind and then reflect on the changing nature of mental states – seeing all thoughts (and by extension all phenomena) as impermanent and in a constant state of change, with the intention of giving rise to the insight that all created phenomena are empty of any fixed or eternal nature.  As such it can seem to be that mindfulness is the meditation where greater insight may occur, whereas Loving Kindness is simply a soft and fuzzy practice for wishing all beings well!

The thing I forgot is the teaching that wisdom cannot be made to arise. Wisdom is itself unborn – otherwise it would be a thing in time just the same as any other thought.  And any thought that is created in time by the thinking mind can also end, it is simply head knowledge, not a knowing that permeates all of one’s being.  In other traditions wisdom has always been represented by the feminine: Sophia is the figure representing wisdom in Mystic Christianity, the Hebrew word for wisdom, חָכְמָה or chokmah, is a feminine noun and for the Ancients Athena was the Goddess of Wisdom.

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In Buddhism wisdom is represented by Prajñāpāramitā, which means “the Perfection of (Transcendent) Wisdom” and as such represents the most sublime essence of wisdom and is represented in feminine form.

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What might it be saying that so many ancient cultures chose to represent wisdom in the feminine rather than masculine form (please note this is not talking about male or female as a gender, but more as archetypal energies that may be described as masculine and feminine, as such whatever sex we may be we all have both masculine and feminine within us)? This is something I’m only just starting to reflect on so I have no definitive answer, and it’s more interesting as a question! Reflecting on it as I  write this it suggests that wisdom is something that is not forced. The masculine energy of doing, getting, attaining and striving for a result is instead met by the feminine energy of softening, listening, connecting, communicating and being receptive and open. It suggests that wisdom is not something to be penetrated into by an act of will but that is born out of a place of openness, connection and receptivity.

How these contrasting energies of active pursuit of a goal and an open and embracing creative heart might come together is represented in another figure used in Buddhism to represent wisdom, Manjusri, whose name means “He Who Is Noble and Gentle.” He is depicted holding a sword in one hand and a copy of the Prajna Paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra in or near his left hand. He is depicted as being youthful with is said to indicate that wisdom arises from him naturally and effortlessly. Despite holding the sword it is significant that his name emphasises his gentle nature.

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And it is this archetypal depiction of wisdom that, for me, holds the clue. In the past I always focused on the sword, which represents the need to cut through the bonds of ignorance, to take action, to be a spiritual warrior.  But Manjusri is also holding the feminine Prajna Paramita (in this image you see the scripture on a lotus growing from his left hand which is held at his heart). In this image masculine and feminine are shown to be in harmony and both are needed. If we think of how the brain works, it shows the rational and logical left hemisphere (represented by the sword) working together with the intuitive and visual right hemisphere  (represented by the lotus) – remembering that the right side of the body is connected to and controlled by the left hemisphere and the left side to the right hemisphere.

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In Chinese philosophy this union of opposites is represented more abstractly by the Ying and Yang symbol:

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So if ancient figures in flowing robes aren’t your thing it is also possible to reflect on this symbol, which describes how opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.

Whichever symbol speaks to you, what writing this reflection has made me feel is that the ability to soften, open, connect and be receptive is a vital part of the path to wisdom – knowledge that arises in the heart rather than from the head. The sword is held over his head, representing action that is willed and determined, whereas the hand holding the lotus flower on which the scripture of wisdom sits is held near his heart.

It is often said that a cup that is full cannot receive any thing more.  The masculine energy of going out, taking action, knowing what it wants and pursuing it does not leave much room in one’s cup! To connect instead with the energy of receptivity, openess and communication offers an opportunity for something unknown to take birth in one’s experience. What the figure of Manjusri above suggests to me is that the masculine energy, represented by the sword, keeps one focused on the task, meditating every day and creating the intentional ‘space’ for wisdom and compassion to arise. But then this effort has to be dropped, for in his other hand there grows a lotus flower and on the open lotus flower the scripture of wisdom called the Prajna Paramita. Just as a lotus bud cannot be forced to come into flower by pulling the petals apart or tying to use the sword to cut it open, so wisdom and compassion has to be allowed to open at it’s own moment of choosing which requires an open heart that is ready to receive and give birth to wisdom rather than a mind that is intent on thinking its way to knowing.

Interestingly this is the modern psychotherapeutic model, where it is the connection and communication between the client and therapist that is seen to bring about healing and self knowledge more than is possible though an internalised quest for understanding oneself, which too often simply becomes the endless turning around of thoughts within one’s own head: “why am I like this”,”what’s wrong with me”, “when will I learn” etc…. or the equally unhelpful act of having some wise person tell one what one’s problems are. Communication is the birth place of a heart based knowing, and this brings us back to the reflection from a few weeks ago: “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”.

In this way the Loving Kindness practice is a reminder to connect with the energy of an open heart, a practice that has no intention of leading anywhere other than the wish for oneself and others to be happy and well – and the deepest expression of that wish would be for one’s own heart to be filled with the wisdom that leads to no longer acting in a way that causes pain to oneself or others – which is compassion: a direct seeing of what Buddhism and other mystic traditions teach, that we are one, that the appearance of individual identity is part of our dream of ego and that when this falls away we see instead our interconnectedness and interdependence on each other and the whole world and universe of which we are a part. I look forward to waking up to this myself! But in the meantime by making the Loving Kindness practice a regular part of my weekly routine I am opening my heart to receiving rather than simply pursuing wisdom – and we all know what happens when we chase after someone – they disappear! Perhaps wisdom needs to be wooed and courted rather than pursued and hunted.

The Buddhist scripture that describes how to practice the Loving Kindness practice is called the Karaniya Metta Sutra and I’ve included a rendering of it below. This is drawn from a number of translations which I have then combined together, including come notes to draw out the meaning of the text.  I hope that reading it gives you a flavour of what the Buddha was teaching when he spoke these words to his disciples 2,500 years ago.

 

The Karaniya Metta 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,
  • live 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.

 
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The Metta Sutta is found in the Suttanipäta, vv 143-152. Often referred to as the Karanïya Metta Sutta

Notes:

1. “Live an upright life” refers to the five precepts followed by lay Buddhists. 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 are:

1) To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings. This precept applies to all living beings not just humans. All beings have a right to their lives and that right should be respected.

2) To undertake the training to avoid taking things not givenThis precept goes further than mere stealing. One should avoid taking anything unless one can be sure that is intended that it is for you.

3) To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconductThis precept is often mistranslated or misinterpreted as relating only to sexual misconduct but it covers any overindulgence in any sensual pleasure such as gluttony as well as misconduct of a sexual nature: any sexual act that harms another, rape, adultery, incest etc. There is no prescription on Buddhism banning or denigrating homosexuality.  

4) To undertake the training to refrain from false speech. As well as avoiding lying and deceiving, this precept covers slander as well as speech which is not beneficial to the welfare of others.

5) To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness.This precept is in a special category as it does not infer any intrinsic evil in, say, alcohol itself but indulgence in such a substance could be the cause of breaking the other four precepts.

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

 

 

 

Turning to embrace what we want to reject

Last year I started to explore lucid dreaming. This is a state where one becomes conscious that one is dreaming and is able to make conscious choices in the dream, knowing that it is a dream. One night I had a nightmare, which is unusual for me, but this one was very frightening.  An old man was running out of the woods towards me and I was terrified as I knew he wanted to kill me. I was laying on the grass and couldn’t move. I screamed and this woke me up, shaking still from the experience.

The next night as I went to sleep I made the determination to meet this man again but this time in a lucid dream, where I would be conscious and know we were meeting in a dream. As I slept I dreamt, and as I dreamt there was a moment of looking around and thinking “I’m dreaming!” At this point I jumped into the sky and went flying for a while and then I remembered my dream from the previous night and made a request to the dream world “please let the meet the man from last night’s dream”. In  moment I was no longer in the clear blue sky but was in the waiting room of a prison. I could hear heavy boots clanking on a metal walkway, echoing through a huge space. The door flew open and two prison guards were holding the man from the previous night’s dream.  They looked at me as if to say “Are you sure you are ready for this?”. I nodded and they let him go.

In an instant he was on me, rushing to grab me and claw at my back with fingers that were metal talons.  As he tried to rip me apart I put my arms up and held him.  It was he who was not going anywhere as I tightened my embrace! I thought “do what you like to me, this is only my dream body, you can’t hurt it in any way”. And I stood there holding him as he struggled and raged. Slowly he started to run out of rage and slumped in my arms.  As I continued to hold him and embrace him he shrank and became a small child and then all that I was holding was an intense sense of sorrow, pain and loneliness.

The dream finished at this point and when I woke up I felt revitalised and full of energy.  It was as if I had met some part of me that had been locked away a long time ago, a sadness or experience that at the time I could not face.  Locked away in the darkness it had gone wild. It hated me for denying it and wanted revenge. By meeting it, holding it and bringing compassion to it that could shift and change, until once again it was simply sadness felt in the moment.

How does this relate to our waking life and practice?

Blocking and Drowning in response to Resisting the First Arrow

Last week I was reflecting on the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows: the first arrow being any experience of pain right now, mental or physical, the second arrow being shot when we do not want to be with this first pain. The first arrow is something that cannot be avoided – we hurt ourselves or something goes wrong. Our response to this may be either to turn to this first arrow and embrace the suffering contained within it, and then to let it pass or we may resist feeling it – “why has this happened”, ” this is so unfair”, “it shouldn’t be like this”, “I can’t stand this pain”. Then we fire the second arrow of resistance. A friend of mine describes the first arrow as necessary suffering – it’s just there and is as it is, and the second arrow as unnecessary suffering – the struggle we add to the initial suffering.

To summarise from last week, if we are caught by the second arrow due to resisting feeling the initial suffering we may resort either to blocking it by:

  • resisting feeling it,
  • becoming restless and unable to stop
  • using  addictions to try and avoid feeling what we don’t want to feel.  The obvious ones: drugs, sex, shoping and television, but also being addicted to certain ways of thinking or relating to the world.
  • being busy and trying to control the world.

Alternatively we may drown in the onslaught brought on by the second arrow through:

  • feeling overwhelmed,
  • exhausted,
  • feeling dull and lethargic,
  • depressed and full of self pity as we catastrophize about the situation or our life
  • feeling increasingly isolated and withdrawn.

We may feel just one of these or move between blocking and drowning.

To avoid shooting the second arrow requires learning to stay with the first arrow, the original pain or turning back to face it again if it has been denied in the past. In this way it is the same process as in my dream: choosing to face that which we fear, but knowing we can do that from a place of awareness, compassion and self-care. As life presents its difficulties it may not always be possible to stay with the first arrow, but as soon as we notice that we are lost in drowning or blocking we can then apply the remedy: turning to face the first pain.

How to do this? Reach out to friends rather than withdraw into isolation. Share how you are feeling and it may start to seem less overwhelming. A friend might bring a different perspective. If you stay isolated with your thoughts going around in the hamster wheel of your mind it can start to seem too much to ever cope with. Talking with fiends helps to put it in perspective.

Alternatively, you may like to find a therapist you trust if it’s a matter you need to talk over but you don’t want to share it with friends. Through therapy you can learn a new way of relating to your inner world and it offers a form of conscious relationship that helps you change your inner sense of what relationship is and once this is changed it will change how you relate to others as you come into relationship with them rather than repeating the old unhelpful patterns.

The mindfulness practice and loving kindness will also help as you can sit with what is there without judging and hold it with kindness, rewiring the neural pathways in your brain as you do so.

Below are two practices I’m exploring at the moment at times of difficulty or painful experiences to help with embracing the first arrow rather than shoot the second:

Self compassion practice

A method I often use is the self compassion practice.  It only need take a few minutes but it is a powerful way of becoming present to oneself in the moment. This was taught to me by Barbara Bexhill and to listen to her guiding the meditation click here

Three step self-compassion meditation by Barbara Boxhall
1. Stop and notice: recognise what is happening in terms of thoughts, feelings and emotions. Turn towards the difficulty and open to it by gently acknowledging “yes, this is a difficult moment”
2. Acknowledge shared humanity: now reflect that “difficulty is part of life” and consider that “just like me there are very likely to be other people right now who may be feeling  just as I do right now”.  Allow this to give you a sense of being connected to others rather than feeling isolated.
3. Meeting the difficulty with kindness: Gently say to yourself “may I meet this difficulty with kindness”.
In stage three consider how you might be kind to yourself: you may choose a nourishing activity if time permits, making a cup of tea, taking a bath, giving yourself a hand or head massage. Alternatively and to keep the experience in the moment you can do the following:

  1. Place your hands on your heart (or rest on your forearm if in public). Feel this contact.
  2. Tune in to the breath and imagine it moving through the area of the heart.
  3. In your mind, say something kind and gentle to yourself: “Yes, this is a difficult” “It’s OK” “I love you” Choose something you feel comfortable saying to yourself and that feels kind and gentle.

Breathing in pain, breathing out its remedy 

A second practice I am starting to explore is from Pema Choron’s book ‘Start Where You Are’. In this she describes the Tibetan practice of lojong. The book describes this in great detail and how to awaken the compassionate heart, but the core message I have taken from it is of breathing in that which we find difficult or painful, perhaps seeing it as black smoke. Then holing it in our heart with kindness and reflecting that just like me there are many other beings feeling this right now. Then breathing out the antidote, imagining that this is white light going out into the world. One then continues to do this, imagining that one is not only breathing in one’s own pain, but that of all beings, and in breathing out we are not just trying to eradicate our pain, but that of all beings.

This week has been the most painful of my life. Someone I know has been arrested and charged with murder and this has led to both seeing him in court at the opening day of the legal proceedings and being questioned by police about how I know him and what I know about him.  There has been the sorrow and pain I feel for the family of the victim, the man who died and for my friend, and this has felt excruciating.

Over this time I have been using this practice when I remember it. Sometimes the feelings become overwhelming. But then I remember to centre myself, breathe in the pain and sorrow that is both mine and all of those involved, and breathe out compassion and kind concern for myself and all those involved, seeing as white light radiating out into the world.

Similarly you might use it if you are feeling lonely. Breathing in the sense of loneliness and breathing out the wish for people to feel connected and loved. Doing this I realised I needed connection after going to the police station to be questioned and I called a friend. I was able to spend the rest of the day with him, giving me a feeling of being held and loved.

I’ve started to do this as I travel around as well.  Seeing people on the tube or a homeless person sitting the street I can feel overwhelmed by the pain in their face and seeing so much suffering as peoplel try to live their lives. Perhaps this is why we learn to not notice such people! But now I have a resource. I can breathe in the pain and breathe out hope.

Because this practice is connected with the breath it is something we can do in a moment. And it only takes a moment to change how we are feeling.

I’ll explore these two practices further this Monday.

For more information about lucid dreaming work click here

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