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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.

Finding Peace Through Embracing Difficulty

.A few years ago I went to a talk by Jeff Foster and I refer back to it frequently as it really clarified for me what this process of embracing the present moment might feel like. I’ve included a clip form one of his talks below where he talks about it.  What struck me was his way of putting it. For so long I had wanted to find a way to stop feeling sad. I wanted my meditation practice to take me to an Enlightened high ground where I could look down on all of the conflicting emotions from a safe distance and never have to feel them again. But as Ajahan Cha’s quote at the top of this article suggests, freedom comes not from being removed from the painful emotions, but through knowing them as they arise and in that way avoiding getting caught up in resisting them or getting lost in them.

What Jeff said which has stayed with me ever since, was that our painful emotions are like children walking lost in a storm. When we feel sadness, or fear, or grief, or whatever it might be that we label as a bad emotion, it is as if that child has come knocking at the door. And they are not asking us to fix them or heal them.  They are simply asking to be held. They are presenting themselves at the door of awareness and awareness can welcome them, embrace them and hold them. The mind that creates the perception of time past and time future builds an impression of something that is overwhelming and has to be fixed: “why am I feeling this”, “aren’t I better yet”, “when will I stop feeling so bad”, “I can’t bear this….it’s too much…when will it end”. In contrast to this, by holding the difficult emotions in the arms of awareness we come into the present moment. No longer lost in the deserts of linear time we can rest in the oasis of the here and now and shift from thinking to feeling. When a difficult emotion is held in this way it is noticed as a sensation in the body.

This was the next point that Jeff made which has stayed with me ever since.  As a sensation it is simply that – a feeling of heaviness in the belly, a sense of fire, or tightness or coldness in some part of my body.  I am not going to be overwhelmed by that! It is possible to hold the tightness, the fire, the heaviness as a sensation in this moment, without having to ask when it will end. In this way one steps into a place of emptiness – being the calm witness to what is arising in this moment.  There may be tears, it may be one opens up to an emotion that has been denied from being held in the present moment, a state of frozen grief, fear, pain or anger that is not felt but at the same time blocks energy from moving freely. And as this thaws there is a flood of emotion. But it is held.  And having been felt, it may be allowed to pass.

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Welcoming is welcoming – not a clever way of fixing

The difficult emotions may then dissolve away, or they may not. The intention of welcoming them in is not that in so doing they will immediately fade away, otherwise welcoming would just be a more subtle part of the fixing agenda. They are welcomed because they are welcomed. They are what is here in this moment and this moment is as it is. To think it should be any other way is to say how it is right now is not the true me, not how life should be and is a mistake, and that at some future point in time when I no longer feel this I will then be who I should be and life will be as it is supposed to be.  In that way one could spend half of one’s life feeling that it is not one’s real life but a mistake, waiting for the real life to begin.

Letting go of preferences, letting go of wanting life to be like the happy advert we carry in our head of the perfect life, we can start to be with the life we have. And as I bring this compassionate embrace to my struggle, my pain and sorrow, then I start to feel a peace that is not dependent on feeling good. It’s a peace that is simply there, holding the struggle, blossoming in times of joy but not dependant on good fortune to exist. It is something we all know.  We have tasted it in those moments of allowing. We were much more familiar with it as children and it is something we now need to remember but once remembered feels familiar. And it is easy to forget, but the more often we wake up to it again the more it starts to be the default mode.

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Shifting from the Doing Mode to the Being Mode, from solutions to acceptance

This aspect of mindfulness may be described as acceptance and equanimity. It is the process of shifting from the Doing Mode that looks for solutions and answers – ‘’why am I anxious’’, ‘’what’s wrong with me’’, ‘’how do I stop this’’ – to the Being Mode that observes without judgement or fear. It is not acquiescence, detachment or dissociation but a wholehearted embracing of the present moment exactly as it is, noticing the thought that it should be different and then embracing this thought as well. This doesn’t mean that if we are ill, for example, we give up on the thought of being healthy. Instead of reacting to being ill with worry or anger and raging against it as we long for health at some point in the future we have an opportunity to become fully present to the experiences arising as a result of being ill: the physical and  emotional pain – the sadness, the wanting it to be different, the grief at lost time or opportunities. We then have an opportunity to embrace all of this in the present moment, whilst taking loving action for our own well-being.  As we accept things as they are this may open the mind to choices that would have been lost sight of if one were only intent on getting away from the discomfort. In this way one dives into the heart of the difficult experience.

The more I trust this the more there is a feeling that whatever is here right now is fine. And in that way there is a deeper sense of contentment and peace. I hope that this encourages you to explore this in your own life and that the talk below from Jeff gives you a feeling for this approach.

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Bringing suffering to an end through a Patient Embrace of the Moment

I was in Greece recently for a holiday and saw a sign for scuba diving.  It’s something I have never done before and I thought it could be fun to challenge myself to try something new and step out of the usual patterns of what I would do on a holiday. I am scared of the water and find it hard to swim but I thought having breathing apparatus and a wet suite would give a different feeling of being in the water, which it did.  It was an amazing experience seeing fish just a few inches from my face and moving in the water. I did find it harder to relax and wasn’t as fluid in the water as I thought I might be but it was a fun experience….until I got out.

As I was drying I could feel that my ears felt a little sore. As the days went on this became worse and eventually led to calling a Dr who confirmed I had an ear infection from the water which required a few days of antibiotic drops.

What was fascinating was being present with the thoughts and feeling that arose over these days. Immediately after the dive when I was just starting to feel sore there was the fear of not knowing what had happened: had I damaged my ear drums, the thoughts of “why did I do that”, “this is going to spoil the holiday”, “how long will this last” and other catastrophising, self-blaming statements.

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First and Second Arrow – how to end unnecessary suffering

Then I remembered the Buddha’s teaching of the first and second arrow. He said that when suffering arrises  – mental or physical – that is the first arrow.  It can’t be avoided.  There is pain. There is a difficult thought. There is sickness or suffering. All of this just is, it has happened and cannot be made not to have happened. The second arrow is fired when I respond to what is with resistance and anger: why did this happen, how stupid of me, I don’t want this…….

The next day I was walking up a mountain path to visit the ruins of a Roman city when I noticed my ear was still sore.  Noticing all of the second arrow inner dialogue of how long, what does it mean, why did it have to happen, how stupid of me…… I reflected that I could add to the suffering of the pain in my ear by being washed away in this flood of thought, or stay with not knowing and holding the one thing that was present in my experience – the pain.

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“Unsure, uncertain” – counteracting the catastrophising mind that makes calamity certain and sure 

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Ajahn Chah, the Thai meditation master who taught my teacher, used to say “unsure, uncertain”. A lot of the catastrophising mind’s fuel comes from wanting to make the uncertainty of life certain by believing one can know how it will impact on the next few days, weeks or one’s entire life! Resting back into the present moment experience and not knowing feels challenging, but for me it opened up a sense of peace.

As I carried on walking up the trail I noticed what was there in that moment:  the sun on my skin, a brilliant blue sky, the excitement of being out on an adventure to find the ruins and the pleasant feeling of physical exertion as I walked up the steep track. And within that there was also the experience of pain. It was not my only experience and was not even the predominant one. It could be held patiently simply as a sensation: a sense of pressure, a slightly warm, burning sensation that had a clear edge in one small area of my body.

Walking up the trail I reflected that just like me there were many people right now who had had a holiday accident and who would be feeling sad and I made the wish that they might recover quickly and find whatever support they needed. This helped to make my experience into something that enabled me to connect out to others with compassion rather than turn in with self blame or anger. I was breathing in the sense of all the suffering there might be of people with similar experiences and breathing out the wish that they might find healing. This helped me to feel more calm and connected me to my heart centre.

Then I noticed how there was a choice to go into the catastrophising thoughts or simply let them be there and pass. Feeling compassion for my own sense of sorrow as I witnessed the thoughts passing by. Sensing that ‘knowing’ that could hold the thoughts without having to be them. And there was a sense of peace.

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“Patient endurance is the highest austerity.”

The Buddha encouraged his followers to practice patience, saying, “Patient endurance is the highest austerity.” I always used to be attracted to this and curious – why was it an austerity?  In the Buddha’s times various austerities were practiced to try and liberate the practitioner from the ego. It might be eating one grain of rice a day, or standing on one leg. They were all designed to create an extreme experience where self and thoughts could be seen clearly in the hope that ego could then be purged or let go of. Some were based on the belief that the soul was separate to the body so by punishing the body the soul would be liberated.

The Buddha had tried this approach to liberation by eating only one grain of rice a day and almost died.  He saw that punishing the body was not the way to liberation but just leads to illness and death without realisation. Patience on the either hand is not harmful.  But it does require being present in the middle of the storm of thoughts that arise when a situation causes us to be unhappy with our experience – waiting in a traffic jam, train delays, illness etc. And rather than identifying with the thoughts by rejecting them or merging with them, there is a process of allowing them to be there and watch them as they arise and fade away.

If an austerity practice is designed to help one let go of ego, then this practice of patience, of resting in the eye of the storm when our impulse is to go into the thoughts or find a way to stop them offers a chance to see that we are not the thoughts. In this way there is nothing to fight.  There is just the experience that is here right now needing to be held – the frustration of the slow queue, the worry over health, the feeling of self-anger at having made what the mind considers a wrong choice. Instead of fighting or merging there is a sense of being present to what is there. Knowing it as it is.

Through taking this approach I had a great day. The thoughts of worry and self-blame drifted in but they were allowed to pass and instead I was present with the fun of exploring the ruined city. My memory now is of a day full of sun and adventure, where the pain is but a small distant aspect of the day. The next day as the pain was still there I took action and saw a Dr who prescribed the drops and a few days latter it was all clear. Latter on when I was on the dance retreat that I was going onto after my week’s holiday  one of the men there got an ear infection from swimming. There was a GP on the retreat and he confirmed the drops would help so I was able to give them to him. So out of my suffering the pain of another was alleviated and I was able to feel the pleasure of this.

The invitation of the practice is to notice when we are adding to our suffering by firing the second arrow of self-recrimination, worry, catastrophising story telling about what might happen, and then stepping into our present moment experience and gently holding that with patient forbearance, compassion and curiosity.

The Loving Heart – the core of skilful emotions

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

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

Loving Kindness (Metta)

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

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

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

Near enemy: selfish affection

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

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

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

The Karaniyametta Sutta

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

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

Whilst meditating contemplate thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes:

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

The Five Precepts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

Amaravati Chanting book, Amaravati publications (1994)

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

Dharmacari Ratnaprabha

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