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Posts tagged ‘loving kindness’

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.

I love me – the science of self love

How uncomfortable does that statement make you feel? Or are you at ease with the sentiment of loving yourself?

The last two blogs have looked at creating new patterns through changing habits over 30 days and finding an accountability partner to help in this.  But as we engage in self development it is so important to notice the tendency to think I will be able to love myself when I am fixed.  We have an idea of how we should be and may not like who we are. If this is the case then there is a risk of always looking to a future version of our self that we can love but feeling that right now we are not lovable. And the people I trust tell me that freedom comes when we can rest into the deepest acceptance of who and how we are right now. To do this we need to turn to wards this moment and hold it fully with love and compassion. But if there is a pattern of not loving ourselves, or feeling we are broken and need fixing then our spiritual journey is sabotaged by the thought I have to make myself someone worthy of love, rather than I love me as I am.

Over my 25 years of teaching the Loving Kindness practice I have felt the benefit of directing this kind attention to myself and others and have seen how people struggle with feeling love for themselves. This last week I was teaching week 6 in the 8 week mindfulness course where we focus on the Loving Kindness practice.  As part of my own development I was listening to other teachers to get new perspectives on how to engage with the practice and I came across a new way of teaching it which immediately resonated.

Instead of moving on to the neutral and difficult person the practice focuses on oneself and a friend. Traditionally the Loving Kindness practice starts with thinking of a spiritual guide and directing Loving Kindness to them before moving to oneself. This gives a sense of being connected to another before dieting attention at oneself. But for most of us in the modern world we do not have a spiritual mentor so this stage is dropped. But this means we go straight into the wish for ourselves to be happy and well which many find hard to fully feel.

In this alternative version the practice starts with another being with whom we have an easy and uncomplicated relationship. This may be a child, a friend, a partner or a pet. Some people feel very lonely and may only feel a warm connection to a pet, and can feel this is not appropriate in the meditation. But the unconditional love a pet gives is exactly what we are looking to feel in this practice. Or we feel ourselves to be with a good friend, and see how pleased they are to see us.

We then wish this being well. And after a short period of this make the wish for both of us with “may we be happy…” In this way we get a feeling of connection. It is only then that we shift the focus to ourselves with “may I be happy” etc. And then rest in this.

I led this version in the class last Monday and people really liked it. On talking with my mindfulness supervisor she encouraged me to explore this approach. So many of us find it hard to really give ourselves love. In this practice we are given permission to fully explore this, without even extending it out to all beings. A Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, has said that it is only when we can fully rest in this self love that we can then extend it to the neutral and difficult person, and from there to all beings. In a strange piece of synchronicity one of the participants on the 8 week course brought Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the Loving Kindness practice in to share last week and it was there I read this advice. Then during the week I looked for a guided Loving Kindness practice and came across one that focused on friend and self without extending out to others and really enjoyed it.

Then on Looking at my book shelf this week I saw a book I’ve had for a few years and never read, ‘I love Me – the science of self-love’, by David Hamilton PhD. In conjunction with listening to the new guided meditation I’ve started reading this book and it is a great exploration of what harms self-love, and how to heal. So over the coming weeks this will be the focus of the emails and the class.

If you would like to buy the book it is available here or listen to him talk in the video below.

 

We are made of star dust

I remember hearing this quote some time ago, perhaps even as a child, as the show it was from, Cosmos, was broadcast in the ’70s. It always made me think of the vastness of the Universe and yet the intimacy of it all – that in this body there are elements forged in the furnace of suns that once burnt bright billions of years ago.

I was not aware of how much truth there was in it and decided last week to research it and I have been amazed at the beauty of this teaching.

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The videos I’ve watched have explored the enormity of the evolution of life in the Universe. The early belief that all of the elements that are described on the periodic table came from the big bang started to be questioned in the 1950s when instead there was a new theory – that they had been created in the first suns that formed when the sea of hydrogen that at that point made up the universe first clumped together to form the first suns. Then as these early suns burnt they in turn created all of the other elements. As these stars then grew old and eventually imploded and then exploded more elements were created and scattered out into the universe in the way  mushroom spoors are scattered out. Seen like this life didn’t simply start on the Earth, but Earth (and any other inhabited planets we are not aware of) is the final expression of a process of life evolving that started with these early suns. For a more detailed description of this process click on the video below.

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What does this signify and why have it as a reflection in a mindfulness email?  For me it points to one of the central teachings of the Buddha: interconnectedness. The Buddha taught that it is only in our ignorance that we think of ourselves as separate egos, because we identify with our bodies as distinct and apart from each other. For him, seeing with wisdom meant seeing that everything was interdependent and interconnected: no one thing exists in isolation from anything else and nothing is born only from itself, but arise out of a complex matrix of conditions.

It is as if a wave on the ocean thought it was a distinct, permanent and seperate thing. But on waking up to its true nature it realises that it is both a unique expression of being a wave existing in the present moment and at the same time made of the ocean of which it is a part and which in fact it is: the wave merely appearing to be something separate and distinct whilst actually being intricately connected to the ocean.  The wave is simply the ocean knowing itself as a wave. And as such there is no difference between any of the waves, for they are all the ocean, and yet all unique.

The Buddha also emphasised compassion. A deep feeling of empathy and connection to the suffering of all other beings. If the wave in our analogy wakes up to being part of the ocean, then it immediately realises that all of the other waves are in fact, itself. That they are all unique and beautiful expressions in the moment of the one source: the ocean, which is what all of the waves share. They are at the same time unique and totally the same.

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If the atoms in me were forged in a star many billions of years ago how many other life forms have they passed through? How many worlds have they been a part of? How many animals and other human beings? This body is not mine. It is ours.  And as I  look at others if I start to see stars and the flow of life rather than just individual beings then each person is both eternity and a single moment: the ocean and the wave.

Right now this is poetry for me rather than a deeply felt insight. But I believe poetry opens the heart and can give rise to wisdom. When the rational mind stops trying to understand and find an answer poetry and the heart rest into the not knowing and find an answer in the question: who am I?

As science shows us, one answer is ‘I am the universe’. Feeling this in the heart takes it to a deeper level of insight. One which would lead to a love for all beings as part of oneself, just as the wave would love all waves when it woke up to knowing that it was an expression of the ocean in one point of time, manifesting in form as a wave. Just as we are the universe knowing itself in this moment of time manifesting as intelligent life in this moment of time, formed of atoms create by the universe in the seed houses of the stars.

Taking this reflection into the Loving Kindness practice can offer a way of opening our hearts to all beings: friend, neutral and difficult.

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Turning to face our pain – embracing what is there in order to be whole

Over the last few months I’ve been discussing with a friend a one day workshop we are putting together that will explore mindfulness and therapy. The central theme will be looking at how we can learn to hold with kindness the wounding that we may carry from our childhood relationships: learning to bring kindness and compassion to the parts of ourself that still struggle and are in pain. One of the metaphors my friend has referred to a number of times is the Buddha’s teaching of the two arrows, and I was reading a book today that makes reference to this teaching as well.

The book, Living Well with Pain and Ilness, by Vidyamala Burch, explores how to apply mindfulness to living with pain. She is focusing on physical pain, but the way she describes the two arrows could also apply to any emotional or mental pain. She starts by quoting the original Buddhist text:

“When an ordinary person experiences a painful bodily feeling they worry, agonise and feel distraught. Then they feel two types of pain – one physical and one mental. It’s as if this person was pierced by an arrow, and then immediately afterwards by a second arrow, and they experience the pain of two arrows.”

What the Buddha is saying is that the first arrow cannot be avoided – there is pain, whether it be physical or mental, and it has occurred.  But how we respond to that pain determines whether we then shoot the second arrow – the aversion to the pain, the desire to escape it or anger at it having happened, these are all thing we add to the experience of the initial pain and actually deepen and intensify it, as the Buddha goes on to explain:

“Having been touched by that painful feeling, they resist and resent it. They harbour aversion to it, and this underlying tendency of resistance and resentment toward that painful feeling comes to obsess the mind.”

We know the thoughts: why me, this isn’t fair, when will it end, how can I make it stop, this is too much……..And once this starts it takes on a momentum of its own, leading to thoughts and actions that may themselves be harmful to our wellbeing but which we justify in an attempt to get away from the pain of the second arrow, almost forgetting that this secondary pain is a result of our reaction to the first arrow.

“Touched by that painful feeling, the ordinary person delights in compulsive distraction, often through seeking pleasure. Why is that? Because compulsive distraction is the only way they know to escape from painful feeling. This underlying tendency or craving for distraction comes to obsess the mind”

It may not be that the source of our distraction necessarily gives us pleasure. Vidyamala Burch commented that she tended to be very argumentative, but she came to realise that arguing with people helped her to distract herself from her chronic physical pain, so she tended to argue a lot, not because it was needed but as a way of coping with severe pain. We may look for distraction in the any number of things: drink, sex, drugs, being busy, television, lost on the internet for hours, porn, eating for comfort, smoking, compulsively talking, doing good deeds for others, shopping…….and whatever else one might addd to the list! It’s not that these things are necessarily good or bad in themselves, but if we are engaging with them in order to avoid the feeling of pain then they can be compulsive and driven rather than something we have a choice over. And as the original pain has not been addressed we have to keep drowning out the ‘noise’ of our pain with these activities, never daring to stop as in the silence of not doing we are faced again with our pain. But as Jung says, “what we resist we persists, what we fight we get more of”. Drowning out the noise of our mental or physical pain with distractions will in the end mean it has to make more noise to make us hear it. We may then intensify the distraction. Going deeper into addiction, whatever our chosen addictive behaviour might be. The result is a decent into ever deeper levels of dissociation and emotional and psychological pain.  The Buddha described this process by saying:

“Being overwhelmed and dominated by pain (through resistance and compulsive distraction), the ordinary person is joined with suffering and stress.”

How did we reach this point of suffering and stress?  By not turning towards the first arrow when it struck, by wanting to avoid feeling that pain through firing the second arrow of aversion to the pain, wanting it to be otherwise, wanting to block out the feeling or not face it.

Burch summarises this process very succinctly in the following way:
First comes the experience of pain – the basic unpleasant sensations. This is what the Buddha called the first arrow and what I have termed primary suffering
Then you respond to the pain with aversion, resistance, and resentment.
Next, you seek to escape from pain by getting caught up in compulsive distractions and avoidance strategies.
Ironically, in your attempts to escape the pain you become stuck in a troubled state until, finally, you’re joined or fettered to suffering and stress, and this dominates your life and obsesses your mind. It is what the Buddha called the second arrow and what I describe as secondary suffering
(p23, Living Well with Pain and Illness)

She goes on to describe resistance as manifesting as either blocking (not wanting to feel the pain) or drowning (being overwhelmed by the intensity of one’s experience of the pain), resulting in either addictions or depression. Looking at this I recognise a tendency in myself toward blocking. As a child and teenager I learnt that it was easier to not feel, to stay busy and create a shell against feeling that which was too hard to feel.  The result was an unexpressed anger, being consumed with anxiety and a tendency to live in my head rather than be in my body. These are all things that as an adult I have been learning to hold and bring a kind attention to. Have look at the summary below of the two approaches to dealing with pain, and see if you recognise a pattern in your own life:

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two arrows

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How do we avoid this second arrow and this whole process of spiralling into addiction depression? We avoid the second arrow by learning to turn to the first with loving, compassionate and gentle attention. We learn to embrace our physical pain, our mental and emotional pain rather than fight it and wish it were not there. The Buddha taught the mindfulness practice and Loving Kindness meditation as a means to help us turn towards the present moment rather than run from it. As we do this we learn to approach our pain, to accept it, to breathe into it and hold it. Pain is part of life.  We are not failing if we feel pain, if we feel confused, lost, angry or upset.  But if we react to these feelings with dislike, wanting to push them away by loosing ourselves in distractions then the attempt to escape them may result in worse pain than the original first arrow.

How many gay men have lost themselves in chem sex rather than face the difficult feelings they have around intimacy, about the shame they internalised whilst growing up that made us think there was something evil or wrong at our core. Where does this chem sex addiction lead so many of us? Does it result in freedom and happiness, or lead ever deeper into a place of isolation and pain? If we turn to casual sex out of a desire for intimacy whilst fearing opening to another then we never connect with any of our partners as they are actually a shield to prevent us being open to anyone, to never be seen. Might it not be more healing to turn and face our loneliness, our fear of rejection and our struggle to emerge from the shadow of shame? This may mean going into the pain, the place we have tried to run from, but by embracing the source of our pain we can bring healing to it – and might even realise that it is not a terrible thing to be escaped from, but a raw and vulnerable part of ourselves that is asking simply to be held and loved. For all of us – gay or straight, it is this brave act of turning to face that which we want to run from that enables us to start to heal.

It is by meeting together as a community, with friends who will love us as we are, without judgement that we can heal. And that is what we can look to create for each other by learning to hold ourselves without judgement in the Loving Kindness practice, for only when we can truly love ourselves can we love others without judgment or expectation. The Dalia Lama quote above reminds me of the theme from a few weeks ago that has been the thread for the last few emails: “we are wounded in community and we heal in community” – let us meet together with whatever communities provide us with support to heal.

What happens when we feel out of relationship with another or a group? Healing hatred through love.

The theme over recent weeks has been “we are wounded in relationship and we heal in relationship”. Last week I reflected on how the Buddha placed compassion and non-violence at the heart of his teaching. The Loving Kindness practice was taught in response to some monks who were having difficulties with some tree spirits in the forrest grove where they had set up their residence. In the time of the Buddha people still believed that all of nature was inhabited by spirits and divinities so it was not unusual for the Buddhist scriptures to describe meetings between the Buddha or his monks and various nature spirits who lived in the tress or streams of the wilderness where the monks made their home. In an age when we like to show how much the Buddha’s teaching matches modern scientific findings there is little reference to this! And for many of us it may mean very little. But the story illustrates an important principle so is worth listing to even if considered a fable or symbolic.

The significance of the Buddha teaching his disciples to extend love to the tree spirits rather than feel resentment or anger illustrates the Buddha’s teaching which I reflects on in last week’s email: “hatred does not cease through hatred but by love”. He did not teach the monks to destroy or annihilate the tree spirits, but to radiate love to them, the very beings that were trying to frighten and disturb the monks in their meditation. This attitude is very contrary to many of our human instincts, which on seeing another as an enemy or obstruction leads to a wish to escape from them or anhiliate them.

And now we come back to the 21st Century and neuroscience! I was watching the excellent BBC documentary about the brain recently and in episode 7 it covered the very troubling and difficult issue of why we hate, and how genocide or inter-group violence can happen. What happens to a group of people that causes them to stop seeing another group as humans and instead be able to unleash untold misery and harm on their fellow human beings? What might we learn about our own individual tendency towards hatred and how to own it but not act on it by looking at what happens on a massive social scale when humans fall out of relationship?

The programme followed a number of experiments that were using brain imaging to observe what happens in the brain in different situations.

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The Pain Matrix

In the first experiment they looked at what happens when we feel excluded from a group. The experiment was conducted online by having three people play a game. Two of the participants were secretly part of the experiment so only the third person was actually being observed. At first the game of online ‘frisbee’ included all of the participants, but after a while the two who were part of the experiment threw it only to themselves and excluded the third. As this happened the brain scan of this third person started to show the activation of the pain centre located at the front of the brain. This is something normally associated with physical pain, but they found that the brain also experiences this exactly the same if it is a mental event arising form the feeling of being excluded.

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From this they deduced that if the experience of being excluded is felt as pain, then as human beings it is natural that we will look for a way of feeling included – by looking for a group of like minded people by whom we are accepted. This is great for our own sense of self-worth, but what happens when our group then defines itself by making another group ‘other’: less worthy, impure, unholy, or to to be despised?

The Loss of Empathy

The next experiment looked at exactly this. What would happen when people identifying with a specific group saw a syringe needle enter various hands? Each hand was labled with a group identity:

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People who identified with one of these groups then watched as the needle entered the hand of each person. The usual empathy response was that the brain would recognise that another was experiencing pain and there would be activity in this area of the brain, shown here by the sudden peak of activity:

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This is what happened when there were no labels. But as soon as the hands were labeled something significant happened. On viewing the needle go into the hand of someone who was in their ‘out group’ participants showed no activation in the empathy centre of the brain. The blue line shows the lack of activation compared to the green line which shows their response to the in-group.

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Their brain was literally no longer registering the other person as another fellow human being who was suffering and for whom they might feel empathy. Instead they were a blank, something rather than someone. Even the atheists identified more with fellow atheists and less with the other humans! So it is not just an issue of religion, but of identifying with a group and then not empathising with those belonging to other groups or groups who hold opinions contrary to your own.

The findings of this experiment were confirmed when a group of people were shown random images of people, including one of a homeless person. When people they looked at images of various people a certain area of the brain lit up connected with recognising fellow human beings:

But on looking a the homeless person there was a marked reduction in this activation in many of the participants:

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The top right hand image shows the lack of activation in the brain when looking at the homeless person compared to viewing other images of people. This showed that for these participants on the experiment they had learnt not to see homeless people as other humans: they no longer recognised them as a person, but could walk past them as a thing.

“Love thine Enemy”

Having looked at these experiments the programme went on to surmise that it is this process that is at work when two groups oppose each other in war or conflict. Having established your ‘in-group’ in order to feel safe and not feel excluded, this group may often be defined by an ‘out-group’ – those who hold opposite views and opinions, who worship different Gods, or worship the same God but with different rituals and dogma. If there is then conflict between these two groups the brain is capable of literally switching off from recognising the members of the ‘out-group’ as other humans, and instead see them as objects. And it is from this that the atrocities we see throughout history and right up to this present day can take place. When we no longer see another as a fellow human being, or feel their pain, then we are capable of doing anything to them.

This is where we return to the Four Divine Abiding meditations and the Loving Kindness practice. The Buddha did not demonise the tree spirits, he did not say to hate them as they were obstructing the monks in their meditation and were ‘enemies’. Instead he taught the monks to be patient, forbearing and loving towards them. It is the same message that Christ shared, although historically this part of his teaching has tended to be conveniently forgotten by many throughout history!

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” Mathew 5:44

“If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.” Luke 6:29

What these teachers are telling us is that hatred does not cease through further expressions of hatred. Hatred ceases through love, and love enable us to see the ‘other’ as a fellow human being. The third stage of the loving kindness practice gives us the opportunity to locate the people who are our ‘out-group’. For us this might not be due to racial or religious distinctions, but by their position in society or in relation to how we see ourselves and our values and how we then despise those who hold different values or beliefs.

Learning to make the wish that others may be happy (the Loving Kindness Practice) have empathy for all who suffer (the Compassion practice) and rejoice in the good fortune of others (Sympathetic Joy practice) counteracts any tendency to feel contempt for some or lack of compassion for others. The Equanimity practice, the fourth of the Divine abiding meditations, encourages us to see that we all inherit the consequences of our own actions, so it is only for us to focus on our actions and wish others well, not to judge or condemn others. These four divine abiding meditations encourage us to explore seeing all those whom we know as simply human beings wanting to be happy and well, who fear pain and sorrow – just as we do.

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Learning to own my own hatred rather than project it out onto another

When I first learnt the Loving Kindness practice I had to learn to love my step-father. I saw him as bigoted and intolerant in his racism and homophobia. I hated him for his intolerance. Until finally I realised that I was simply hating that which I was feeling myself! I was intolerant of his intolerance and used this to justify feelings of hatred towards him, even hoping he would die. On seeing this the work became more internal. I couldn’t change him, but I could change how I was reacting and relating to him. As a result of this process I felt much happier. He also changed and softened in his outlook as we were not in conflict but in dialogue.

If you have someone or some group you know are your ‘out-group’ I invite you to explore holding them in the third stage of the Loving Kindess practice. Learn to recognise them as a fellow human being, with their own hopes and fears, their desire to be happy just as you wish to be happy and their sorrow at loss and pain just as you feel sorrow of these things. In this way we can create an opening for peace in our heart. And that is the only part of the world for which we have any direct responsibility. But as we plant the seed of peace in our heart it may grow and bloom and the scent reach others, influencing their thoughts and actions – and in tis way we may indeed create a kinder world. In the end it may be that you find that, as Jung says, those who annoy you shows you what we need to see in yourself.

To down load a guided version of the Loving Kindness practice click here

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Looking from the Heart of Compassion

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

“He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me” — for those who brood on this, hostility isn’t stilled. “He insulted me, hit me, beat me, robbed me” — for those who don’t brood on this, hostility is stilled.

Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unending truth.

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In a world where there seems to be so much division and hatred, and at a time of year when we celebrate the return of the light to the world it helps to look back 2,500 years and listen to the words of the Buddha. These verses from the Dhammapada are the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha and as close to hearing him speak as we can get. In them he is concerned to give a direct message to the human heart and to emphasise the need for meditation practice to provide the antidote to the poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance that intoxicate all humans and cloud the clear light of compassion and wisdom with the shadow of hatred.

For the Buddha the essential ignorance was not seeing the truth that we are all one being, mistaken in thinking we are separate ego entities fighting each other for dominance. We are connected though the breath to the life of the planet, we are born form the earth and return to the earth and our life is sustained by the earth and the whole universe whilst in our physical form: we eat, drink and breathe and receive the heat of the sun to sustain us.  “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff,” Carl Sagan famously stated in one episode of his 1980s series “Cosmos”. His statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff.   We carry in us the elements born in long extinct stars.

Hence, we are not isolated individuals or groups opposed to one another but part of an interconnected and interdependent matrix of being: one entity manifesting in many forms. Thus to harm another is to harm oneself, for we are one. The Buddha suggested that more than this we are not our bodies or minds, that we are something that as unenlightened beings we cannot even conceive, but one might call it universal energy that has fractured and forgotten that it is One. The Buddha taught that our true nature, what we are even if we have forgotten it, is unborn, and uncreated. As such we can never loose our true nature, never be parted from it, and it can never be defiled.  But we can forget it, and act out of greed, hatred and ignorance – harming others and through this ourselves. All of the Buddhist traditions teach that this true nature is so close, closer than a blink of a moment away and when we wake up to our true nature once more, this insight gives rise to love, compassion and wisdom. As it is unborn there is nothing we can do to make it happen – it’s more like remembering a fact we know is there but can’t bring to mind, we need to relax and let it surface.  In this sense meditation is a sate of ultimate relaxation in order to open to remembering our forgotten true nature.

For this reason the Buddha placed compassion and non-violence at the heart of his teaching as it leads to peace of heart and mind. The term in the verse above translated as love is averena, which translates as non-hate: “hatred ceases through non-hate”. It thus has the broader sense than just love by meaning any non-hateful qualities that promote peace and understanding: reflection, mindfulness, compassion, calmness, patience. But using love gives a clear sense of what is intended and has a warmer emotional tone than saying non-hate.

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A friend of mine told me of an experience he had recently that illustrates this very well.  He was at a check out and thought the assistant was looking him up and down in a critical way, as she kept looking him over with what seemed an unfriendly expression. As he is very established in his meditation and reflection practice he noticed this, noticed an urge to judge her as being critical and to feel any angry response and desire to say or do something to retaliate. But instead by holding this all with awareness he came back to the reflection: “unsure, uncertain”. He did not know what she was thinking as he was not a mind reader and he did not know what was happening in her life, perhaps she was just having a bad day. In any case, whatever she was thinking did not actually relate to him as it was simply thoughts in her head about him, and as she did not know him other than these few moments of meeting so whatever she was thinking was not about him as a person but her impression of him and her way of seeing the world. Whenever we have difficult encounters with others whom we do not know – a stranger pushes past us or someone is rude to us – it’s so useful to remember that they are not seeing us objectively, they are seeing us in the drama of their world and we are just a sideshow there, what they are seeing is to do with their drama not us.

To return to our story of my friend at the check out.  His reading of what was happening was that she was thinking something critical about him, but he stayed with wishing her well, not knowing if his reading was correct, and if it were, reflecting that he did no know what was happening for her in her life and how she might be feeling right now, reflecting that she might be in need of compassion rather than anger if she was suffering in some way to give rise to her behaviour. So instead of scowling and being abrupt he was polite and smiled and spoke to her in a friendly way.  She then asked where he had got his coat as she wanted to get a relative one and was thinking this looked so good on my friend and that it would also suite her relative. She was not looking critically at all, it was her thinking face! And she was actually ready to give a compliment, which my friend would not have received if he had upset her!

Every day we have these small opportunities to spread a little peace and love in the world.  And when we get lost in our stories and react and get caught up in the drama, as soon as we settle we can use the Loving Kindness practice and mindfulness to come back to caring for ourself and the person we have found difficult and then find a skilful way of relating to them again with kindness or if needed an apology for our actions. This doesn’t make us wrong or mean we are failing in the practice, it’s simply part of coming back into balance – sometimes we loose this balance, but as soon as we spot this we can come back to being centred and act again out of love rather than anger.

If you are interested in reading more of the Dhammapada verses click here.

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