Talking Dharma – Talking Kindness
When we walk the Dharma journey and live it on the basis of kindness, we cause less harm to ourselves, others and the world around us. It is not possible to exist as a human being without actually causing harm so our Dharma life is focused on doing the least amount of harm possible within our own life circumstances and in a way that is appropriate to each experience. If our motivational intent is to do no harm then it follows that in all instances we will be seeking to do the least harm possible to ourselves, others and the world around us even if we inevitably do harm.
We find in the ancient Buddhist texts that the Buddha first taught about the awareness and development of kindness to a group of followers who had been practicing meditation in the forest. Apparently, they were scared that the spirits of the forest did not want them there and would attack them and cause them harm. This is quite bizarre in that the Buddha himself would have had no sense of such things as spirits existing, other than as a figment of the imagination, possibly arising as a result of a fear of the dark or some ingrained superstitious belief. Whatever the reason was, it was clear to him that somehow that fear had caused them to worry. Of course when one is worrying it is not very helpful when you are trying to meditate as this thing we call mind will not be able to settle. So, to try and help his followers overcome this perceived threat, the Buddha taught them the awareness of kindness meditation practice. Within that communication he set out the need to forgive everyone for everything and he taught them how to live a life of kindness, with a willingness to help others and to cause the least amount of harm possible.
This communication is known within classical Buddhism as the Karaniya Metta Sutta and is found in the Pali Canon. What follows is an interpretation of that text within the context of secular western Buddhism.
If you are aware of what is helpful for you to realize peace of mind you will know that you have no option but to live the Dharma journey with integrity. The journey begins as a potential by a person who goes for refuge in accord with the eight-step journey and supported by the five ethical training principles. This person will be gentle spoken, flexible and not conceited. As a result of living a simplistic life they will become contented with fewer worries as they are living an uncomplicated life. They will guard the gateways to their senses to maintain calmness of mind, practice awareness at all times, be respectful of others and avoid group think and behaviour that may influence them to think, speak and act in a way that could be pointed out to them as unhelpful by a wise friend. They will meditate in this way. May all beings be safe and secure. May all beings experience contentment. They will consider every living thing without exception. The weak, the strong, from the smallest to the largest, whether you can see them or not, living nearby or far away, beings living now or yet to arise. May no one deceive or look down on anyone anywhere, for any reason. Whether through experiencing anger or through reacting to someone else, may no one want another to worry. As strongly as a mother, perhaps risking her life, cherishes her child, her only child, develop an unlimited concern for all beings. Develop an unlimited concern of friendliness for the entire universe, expressing kindness above, below, and all around, beyond all narrowness, beyond all rivalry, beyond all unhelpful states of mind. Whether you are staying in one place or travelling, sitting down or in bed, in all your waking hours rest in this awareness, which will realize peace of mind right here and now. In this way, you will come to let go of views, be spontaneously ethical, and realize appropriate view. Leaving behind want for sense pleasures, from the rounds of re-becoming you will ﬁnally be completely free.
It is said that after hearing the Budda communicate this, his followers went back to the same place in the forest but this time without the fear. They had been given the appropriate tools by the Buddha to process that fear and see it for what it was and how to prevent it from arising again. They had trust in the Buddha. As they recited the phrases of kindness he had shown them, they began to experience a sense of calm appreciation for the silence and solitude of the forest. The fear of being attacked fell away and what were previously considered dangerous animals were now thought of as friendly. It was as if the birds of the forest were singing just for them. The bugs, midges and mosquitoes no longer bothered them. Even if they were bit they were content with providing a benefit to whatever bit them. As they opened their minds to the actuality of interconnectedness their environment became a safe haven.
When we are acting on the basis of kindness ourselves, we naturally experience kindness from others. It is a two-way process. Kindness is the perfect antidote to fear, as well as many other forms of worrying. I know this to be the case. I have tested and challenged this approach in one of the most hostile environments you could think of. For thirty years I worked as a front-line, uniformed Police officer and Detective in some of the toughest areas of London. Kindness and a smile have saved my life on more than one occasion and prevented serious injury on countless others. As a young man I could never quite understand why everybody else seemed so angry. Violence never made any sense to me. There was a real need that arose for me when I was about thirteen to try and understand what anger and violence was. I decided to challenge the school bully to a fight for no other reason than he was the biggest and toughest person I knew and I had witnessed him doing some really horrible things to others. My own group of friends thought I was crazy and to some extent it could be said I was. There was no fear present as the time grew nearer for the fight to take place on the piece of rough ground opposite the school. I wasn’t the slightest bit angry as we squared up to each other and he started to verbally abuse me. As he began to take his jacket off his arms were more or less pinned back behind him and I saw an opening. I hit him once on the chin, his jaw broke, he fell backwards and he was out like a light. Whilst the crowd went wild and cheered me on I just stood there, calm as a cucumber with a sense of regret but not guilt. When he came round I was still by his side tending to him and apologised for hurting him. I will never forget his words. He said. “Thank you. I deserved that.” He refused to name me as his attacker and we became very close friends. He gave up being a bully and when others came to seek revenge he would never fight back but just apologise and take what they had to give him.
It needs to be pointed out that sometimes kindness is not a two way process and does not result in physical safety for everyone. There is no magical mystical stuff going on here. What came to mind as I was writing this was an image of people who acted out of compassion and kindness to help Jews from being sent to their deaths in Nazi concentration camp and were imprisoned, tortured or killed themselves as a result. We can see all around us that in actuality kind people are persecuted and subject to violence because of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their choice of religion. What the Buddha was pointing to in this communication, I suggest, is not so much about physical safety but more about the quality of our state of mind. Not so much an external safety but an inner one. I read a story once about a Tibetan Buddhist nun who was beaten and raped by Communist soldiers during the reoccupation of Tibet in 1959. Although her physical body was violated, her years of kindness practice allowed to her to withdraw inwards to a place of safety within her mind. She allowed kindness to extend mercy and met her attackers with forgiveness and compassion. She understood the deep state of confusion that these men were in and knew that although they were physically hurting her they were also harming themselves psychologically and would eventually experience the result of their actions. In such circumstances, kindness does not protect us against being physically hurt, but it does have the potential to protect us from unhelpful states of mind and all of the worrying that comes with them. Kindness has the potential to protect us from the extra layer of worrying we create through want, not want and confusion, and in that way it makes the world a safer, kinder place.
Talking Dharma - Talking Equanimity
Equanimity is, according to the Buddha, the experience of the awakened mind. It does not contain any aspect of worrying that can be found in both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. It is way beyond what we understand to be happiness, delight or joy. The experience of equanimity is undisturbed by the ever changing circumstances of life. This thing we call mind remains at peace as events change from hot to cold, from sweet to sour, from easy to difficult. It could be said to be the neutrality of the Buddha’s middle way approach but that neutrality can be ever so subtle to discern because of the existence of the conditioned self-biased mind.
The actuality of equanimity remains steady throughout all experiences. Although there is still the awareness present that the mind has a tendency to be drawn towards the pleasant and to move away from the unpleasant, as it has no attachment to a need to act upon those things it therefore remains at peace with itself and simply responds as is appropriate to the experience.
What is missing from the experience of equanimity is the personal preference aspect that would normally dictate what action should be taken based on one’s conditioning factors. Equanimity is the willingness to be open to all experience, as it is, with no separation between pleasant and unpleasant in order that peace of mind can be established and maintained as the central and defining balance of life in which you are no longer pushed this way and that by the coercive distractions of want and not want.
Equanimity has the capacity to experience and accept extremes without the drama of worrying rising to the surface and throwing you off balance. It takes an interest in whatever is happening simply because it is happening. Contrary to the criticisms of those who do not know this experience, it is not about indifference, coldness, a lack of emotion, boredom or hesitation. Equanimity is an expression of calmness and contentment with the way things are, as they are, in any moment of existence.
An effective way of exploring this in a practical way so that you can begin to understand what equanimity is, could be to try exploring it from the perspective of what you eat. Eating is such a necessary thing to ensure the possibility of our next moment of life that it is possibly the easiest thing to experiment with. Whatever your favourite meal is, the next time you cook it or eat it, begin to explore it from the perspective of trying to understand equanimity.
Think of your favourite curry. Think of all those different amazing flavours, each unique and exquisitely clear and separate from each other. There is the sweetness of cooked tomatoes, the aroma of fresh basil, the soft texture of an aubergine that is ready to melt on the tongue and then there is the heat of the little green chilli and all of the other ingredients. If you are paying attention each smell and taste can be discerned with acute precision and clarity. When blended together within the creation process of the perfect curry what arises is a unique blend that is appreciated for its combined qualities. When equanimity is present the experience of wanting another mouthful is absent. The curry will be fully experienced with equanimity rather than pleasure. Try it for yourself with whatever your personal favourite dish is. See if you can experience that balance around taste and the unique moment.
The difficulty for many people with this subject is that society conditions us to go in search of this thing called happiness. As far as am I aware it is actually a given right within the American constitution. More often than not that search for happiness is an external exploration as if some thing, or some body out there can make us happy. We want the joy, the delight, the passionate involvement with our lives. We love the excitement of our experiences. With this in mind it is understandable that as a concept, equanimity does not sound that appealing. But I can say that those I have worked with in this area, once they have taken up the challenge to let go a bit of the cyclic and habitual behaviour, have found, often to their surprise, that once the experience of balance, contentment or even peace of mind has been realized even slightly they experience something of what equanimity is all about and that makes a significant change in their approach to the Dharma journey.
Every experience of liking something has its opposite. The fickleness of personal preference gives rise to worry. The deeply balanced state of equanimity provides the opportunity for a sustained investigation of our physical, emotional and psychological moment by moment experience. Arising out of this opportunity is a combination of concentrated stability, penetrative exploration and conscious awareness that can literally shake us out of the habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting that prevent breaking through into actuality.
The authentic Dharma practitioner thrives on unpredictability. They test and refine inner qualities. Every situation becomes an opportunity to abandon judgment and opinions and to simply pay full attention to what is actually happening. Situations that would normally be considered at least inconvenient become a fertile ground for practice where they can learn how gracefully they can compromise in a negotiation, how the mind can remain at peace when you have just driven round the car park three times looing for a space and manifestation of one hasn’t yet happened. It’s when that six hour delay for your flight becomes an opportunity for meditative reflection rather than worry. All of life’s inconveniences can become opportunities for the development of equanimity. Rather than shifting the blame onto an institution, system, or person, one can simply choose to be at peace within the experience of inconvenience.
We hear the word equality used quite a lot within western culture. Often, in the impossible pursuit of equality, what happens is that laws are created that attempt to create a balance, but often result in things such as ‘positive discrimination.’ Because of the unique nature of the human conditioning process, equality will always be an idealistic fantasy that can never be realised, so all attempts to realize it will set up the conditions for disappointment which will result in worrying. Being afforded legal rights of equality in anything does not result in equality in actuality.
So, even on an everyday practical level the pursuit of equality is as ineffective as the pursuit of happiness because both will set up the conditions for the mind to worry because neither can be realized within the human experience. On an everyday practical level it is possible to realize equanimity in the form of moving towards creating a society where nobody is discriminated against on the basis of their skin pigmentation, their gender or sexual orientation, their age, their size, their religious belief system, or physical, emotional or psychological differences. This has little to do with justice or a sense of fairness. Life is neither just nor fair and to believe that it is will again set up the conditions for worry. Life is simply the result of preceding causes and conditions and what you think say and do yourself in this moment will determine the quality of your mind state experience in the next.
If we understand the Dharma correctly then it becomes clear that the development of equanimity is an essential practice to help loosen the attachment to the belief that we are a separate self-biased mind which is the fundamental confusion that prevents the break through experience of clarity. So, how do we begin to develop equanimity on a practical everyday level? Our starting point, as always, is to pay attention to what we think say and do to ensure that we are living up to our commitment to do the least amount of physical, emotional or psychological harm to ourselves, others and the world around us. When we are living within the integrity of that undertaking how could it even be possible to discriminate against another human being for any reason? Another possible way of exploring this is within the broader ‘golden rule’ concept. You would not wish to be discriminated against for any reason so how is it appropriate if you discriminate against another?
According to the Buddha neither the unhelpful experience of unpleasantness or the unhelpful pursuit of pleasure is conducive to the experience of equanimity. Equanimity, according to the Buddha is the experience of contentment and peace of mind. Equanimity as a lived experience is incomparable with happiness, joy or even bliss. The mind remains undisturbed as events change from light to dark. This neutral experience is so subtle that at times it can be very difficult to discern. It is when personal preferences no longer dictate what is being experienced. There is no like or don’t like happening within the experience. It is a willingness to accept experience as it is without the label of pleasure or pain and points to a deep sense of balance in which the mind is not pushed or pulled in the direction of want and not want that is based in the confusion of the self-biased mind.
Contrary to popular misconception the neutrality of equanimity is not cold, unemotional, uncaring indifference Neither is it boring and dull. It is a vibrant acceptance of the way things actually are that takes a keen interest in things as they arise and fall because in its fullest sense it is compassionate awareness doing the observing. It is the perfect expression of the middle way approach that finds the calmness, tranquillity, contentment and the experience of a mind that is at peace with itself, others and the world around it. It takes life as it comes and responds as is appropriate to the experience and as always the only thing that is ever appropriate is compassion.
Talking Dharma – Talking Distractions
Distraction means more than just being aware of how many times you check your phone or Facebook. Distraction is the foundation of the self-biased mind. It is the way that we try and make sure that we do not have to experience things we don’t like about ourselves, others and the world around us. The downside is they are also the things that prevent us from opening up to the awakened mind experience, which only has the opportunity to arise when no distractions are present. In our everyday world, distractions are everywhere, all of the time. This thing we call mind has a range of little screens, middle size screens and giant screens that lighten up with flickering thought images that often have no real substance to them.
We are so easily distracted, we complain to ourselves. But what is really behind all this distractedness? It is easy to think that the relentless external sensory experiences are the problem, but what we are surrounded by are just ever changing things and nothing more. The objects of our world are just there, innocently, just being what they are. Noises are just noises, sights are just sights, objects are just objects, smartphones are just smartphones, computers are just computers, thoughts are just thoughts. That is why it may be more helpful to consider that distractions are an external thing that do cause difficulties, but also allow us to rationalise them by blaming external conditions instead of taking responsibility ourselves. Whereas the language of the wandering, or monkey mind ensures that we internalize the experience and take responsibility so we can actually do something about it.
Outside of meditation, no matter how much awareness you muster, there is always going to be distractions. It’s not helpful to kid ourselves about this. It’s not as if we are doing anything wrong or need to be experiencing guilt or need to beat ourselves up. You may run away to a little cave or your special place and stay there all alone, but distractions will follow you wherever you go. You can’t get rid of distractions, but through consistent awareness meditation practice, you can make changes that will see you being less reactive towards them and being more responsive to them.
Awareness meditation practices help us to develop a calm and stable mind. It gives us greater focus and concentration and is an effective way of overcoming ordinary distractedness. However, in terms of the Dharma journey, this systematic application of meditation practice is only a start. It is important to realize that the point of working with your wandering mind is not just to be more focused on whatever you are doing. Although that is helpful, it is only the first step. Getting a better handle on your mind so you are not tossed about by distractedness is just a preliminary measure.
Most people tend to like Dharma practice that is not too threatening. They choose practices that confirm what they are doing and help them to do it better. Instead of looking into the fundamental state of being, they prefer to relate to meditation as a self-improvement exercise, like going to the gym and working out. They can then bask in the satisfaction of becoming more mentally and physically fit. This is great, but it does not come close to addressing the depths of what distraction is all about. When distractions come up we can deal with them, but we need to look deeper. What really fuels our distractedness? What is behind this ongoing restlessness? The Dharma journey requires that we develop the courage to look beyond our distractedness to what lies behind it. It requires us to question what distraction is really about, what we are distracting ourselves from and why. On this journey we need to peel away, layer by layer, every level of distraction until we reach a kind of ground zero.
According to the Buddha, distraction is classified, along with such things as laziness and inattentiveness, as one of the twenty destabilizing factors of the mind. It arises when the natural flow of sense perceptions is joined with and tainted by our emotions. In other words, distraction is fueled by the usual suspects of wanting, not wanting and confusion. So distraction is not just some mental tic. It is highly emotional. The approach of learning how to gently encourage our mind back when it wanders is a reactive process, but one where we are learning how to respond as is appropriate to the distraction.
As we get a little better at responding to external distractions, we discover an even more gigantic mountain of internal distractedness. We begin to notice how it is not just a matter of reacting to something outside us, we ourselves are continually creating distractions. We find that we seem to need distractions, so we continually think them up and keep them going. They are our companions, our pets. They allay that sense of fear of thought-less-ness or no-thing-ness.
The wandering mind is the world of our subconscious gossip, a kind of on-going drone of thought fragments and opinions. It is the mind of entertainment changing from one channel to the next in search of something more entertaining. If there are no immediate distractions, it will manufacture new distractions on the spot. So we are engaged in a continuous distraction project, keeping the distractions and entertainments flowing without interruption. There is an air of desperation about both of these self-created rivers of distractedness. What is actually happening is we think that if we keep all this distractedness going, we will not have to look at who we are, we will not have to experience what is happening right now.
But the Dharma journey is one of removing these smoke screens and facing facts. It is an unmasking process. It is pretty scary to realize how reliant we are on this whole scheme, and even scarier when we realize that this continual distraction project may collapse at any time. Distraction is fuelled by our constant struggle to secure ourselves in relationship to others and to the environment. That project in turn is fuelled by our fear of letting go and our lack of trust in ourselves. It is as if we are on guard all the time, afraid to miss an opportunity to strike and continually wary of potential threats or attacks. Based on these emotional impulses, our mind is pulled this way and that. To relate to this level of distractedness, we need not only to pull back the wandering mind but also to lessen its fuel supply: the push and pull of emotions.
Working with distractions is a long-term project. We may begin with a romantic idea of embarking on the Dharma journey. But as we stick with the practice, that romanticism fades away and we are left with a gradual wearing down process. We find we have less and less wiggle room. It is a shock to realize that we cannot just take our good old self and improve it, but that we have to start over completely. It’s like a major liquidation sale. All our distractions and entertainments, everything’s got to go. As our distractedness begins to crumble, we are faced with disappointment and pain. Our dreams and illusions begin to evaporate. Everywhere we turn, we get thrown back on ourselves. There is no escape. No matter what is happening, we have become used to being able to fabricate alternate scenarios, so we could never be pinned down. We did not have to fully commit to anything; there was always a way out. But now we are stuck. We are confronted with our own worrying and disappointment.
With no one to keep us company, we can’t even keep ourselves company, we are confronted with our utter aloneness. There is nothing to do and nothing to hang on to. We are alone, lonely, it is bleak. Everything we relied on turns out to be a sham, a mental construct. We hit a wall. But when we reach the point where we can no longer cover up what we have been doing or force our experience to bend to our will, something happens. We begin to relax. Although at first the notion of utterly abandoning our smoke screen of distractions is threatening, even terrifying, if we stay with that experience even a little, the smoke begins to clear and we can start to see in a completely new way.
It’s a bit like the analogy of the light at the end of the tunnel. At that darkest point of disappointment and frustration, maybe those times when you may have considered giving up altogether is when the Dharma journey towards awakening really begins. It is there that the communication can begin to take hold, not as an intellectual ego boost for the self-biased mind, but as a deep-rooted transformative process that reaches right down to the core of our being.
Talking Dharma – Talking Encouragement
I am often asked to tell my own personal journey about what happened on June 13th 1980 and what happened after it. I have done that many times in the past and often drop bits of it in when I am communicating the Dharma. As far as the Dharma journey is concerned the period from 24th October 1954 to 13th June 1980 has very little relevance other than the entire period was the amalgamation of causes and conditions that brought me to the cliff’s edge with the decision to jump or not to jump. I often talk about my time within western Buddhism with the western Buddhist order that is now known as Triratna and have also talked a little bit about my origins within the Theravadin school, and the different Vajrayana schools of Tibetanism that I engaged with, but have rarely talked about the influence of Zen which was actually the major influence within a Dharma context. So, I’ve been reflecting on my time spent within the Zen school of Buddhism way back when and how very different that approach is in relation to the secular western approach that I now communicate. I don’t mean this to sound demeaning in any way, but it struck me that there would not be many people, if any, within the public at large who would last five minutes being subjected to the level of discipline required within Zen. Within that school there is hardly any social interaction. There are no coffee mornings, no sit around and chat nights. Even the weekly gathering for meditation is done in total silence. You arrive in silence, sit in silence, drink tea in silence and go home in silence. It’s rare even to actually sit around discussing the Dharma as a collective. You are given a teaching and then sent away to work on it and keep coming back to get clarification until you understand it fully. Finding that middle way balance between meeting the wants and needs of current day Dharma practitioners was always going to be difficult within a western culture that has developed very quickly into a meme society. But that does not mean it is OK to sit back and not review things once in a while to ensure we are not simply colluding with our habitual patterns of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
The thing about the Zen tradition is that it is practically impossible to understand from a book, no matter how well that book is written. You can only understand it fully when you surrender yourself to it and embrace every aspect of its disciplines. According to the Zen tradition, it is only they who have communicated the essence of the Buddha’s awakening experience in an unbroken line from Master to student, from mind to mind, without making use of texts or verbal discourses that are of any authentic benefit. That is just the usual claims of the institutions of religious Buddhism that seem to have a need to do this kind of one-upmanship thing. In actuality, in both of the major schools of Zen, Rinzai and Soto there are great texts to explore and work through and there is an encouraged emphasis on study. But the most significant aspect of Zen is this term ‘surrender.’ In the Zen tradition the Zen Master uses any and all means at their disposal, confusing words, gestures, shouts, and even blows to enable the break through of those in training. He never allows the student to settle down into that comfort zone that is so appealing to many Dharma practitioners.
In the Zen tradition we had this thing called the encouragement stick. Its traditional name is the kyosaku. I was subject to it for a number of years when in training and then, having been recognized as a Meditation Master myself, I actually got to wield it for a couple. In classical Zen there are numerous stories in which the Master makes judicious use of the stick to strike their students. In some of these stories, this treatment is said to bring on realization or breakthrough. More often though it simply indicates the Master’s rejection of the words spoken by his student who is recognised to be caught up in the distractions of delusion.
The meaning of blows in classical Zen falls into two different categories. The first is that of ‘upaya’ the Mahayana concept of “skilful means’ which in my terminology would translate as a helpful act, as its motivational intent is the compassionate response of the Bodhisattva whose role it is to help you to awaken. The second category is probably even harder to accept outside of the tradition because it is about authority and let’s be honest we’re not that keen on perceived authority in the west. In this respect the stick was used to keep students in line with their undertaking to go for refuge to the three jewels and within that tradition, submit or surrender to their teacher. Now, here as always is the paradox. The teacher student relationship is about a two way development of trust. We are taught from day one to test and challenge everything we hear within the Dharma journey and that includes what our teacher tells us. But, within the Zen tradition the break through moment is said to happen when we surrender fully and it is at this point that trust is established and we no longer need to question anything. This is usually marked by being accepted into an Order.
Nowadays, the stick has more or less become a symbol of authority. It is much the same way as the wearing of a robe or kesa is a similar recognised symbol that the wearer is either fully trained or in training and may be of help to others. What I can say about the use of the stick, bearing in mind I did get hit with it quite a lot in the early days, is that it never hurt physically and as far as I am aware I never caused any actual physical pain when I used it on others later. That, I hope, explains why it is called an encouragement stick. In Soto Zen you sit facing the wall but in Rinzai Zen you sit in the centre of the room, but the principle is basically the same. The student will raise their hand to ask to be struck. Usually this is when they have pain in the leg from sitting and the strike with the stick on the shoulders takes their attention away from it momentarily, or if they are experiencing drowsiness and need a reminder to pay attention. But even then there is something else going on. The student is also raising their hand to show the Master that they are being open and honest about their practice. They have developed a level of trust that knows that the Master is there to help them and know that hiding things from them or pretending is never going to do that.
The other thing that can happen is that the Master notices a sitter nodding off, slumping or squirming from pain and taps them back into paying attention. How different this is with the relationship between teacher and student in the west. Quite often, any attempt to help the student to move forward will be met with the silent or unexpressed cry of “who do you think you are telling me what to do, you’re not so special,” or “but I don’t like that,” and all that kind of thing. There is nothing wrong with that. Let’s face it we’ve all been there at one time or another. But is it helpful to keep on repeating that same story to ourselves time and time again? Are we going to keep doing that until we find the perfect teacher? There is no such thing. The actuality is that you can become fixated on the biographies, the status, the recognition and all the other very appealing materialistic aspects of having your own private guru that you can show off to your friends, but the moment they tell you something that you don’t want to hear they will automatically become just another imperfect teacher. Why? It’s because you have not developed any degree of trust in them. So, when you find yourself reacting in this way, it is time to ask yourself a serious question: how many more years am I going to waste searching for the non-existent perfect teacher?
I consider myself to have been fortunate to have met a Zen Master, who, despite being a westerner himself, was a traditionalist and refused point blank to collude with the emotional sensitivities of his western students. There is an old saying within Zen and that is “when the time is right for the student, the teacher will appear.” In my own circumstances I met my Master when I was sitting on a log in full police uniform, meditating in the woods at Nine Elms golf course in the UK. That is what I did most days at that time because I had been posted to a quiet little country village where nothing ever happened. I was literally a tax funded full time meditator. During our initial conversation it transpired that the centre where he taught was about ½ a mile away from the border of my own allocated beat in a place called Pratts Bottom, which for some reason still brings a smile to my face today. So, I went to see my boss and complained that there was not enough for me to do on my current beat and could I take over the adjacent beat which was vacant at the time. Two beats became one and now I could go to the centre every day for intensive one–on-one training and get paid for it at the same time.
Bearing in mind the experience in 1980 preceded this, it didn’t take too long before the Master recognized that he could communicate with me on an entirely different level than all of his other students. This was seen by others as me being the teachers pet and that did cause some conflict within the community because some had been there for years and had an idea that length of service should count for something. In the Zen tradition there is a ceremony called Dharma transmission. It is an acknowledgement by the Master that the student is now the Master and they are the student. This is the mind to mind transmission I spoke of earlier. In effect, although the Master remains a Master he is indicating his choice of successor to ensure that the context he has set out remains intact for future generations. The date was set for my transmission ceremony and two weeks prior to that date my Master died of a heart attack. What followed was an implosion within the Order as people fought with each other for the power and prestige they believed the role would give them. They took sides and turned it into a political circus. I did not participate at all but observed. In all honesty I didn’t want the job but the pressure to take it on was immense. I chose an alternative approach and simply walked away as I did when my Theravadan teacher died. That Zen Order no longer exists today.
When I first met Sangharkshita, the founder of Tritratna and we talked about my history and in particular my dead teachers he looked up and said “I suppose you’re going to ask me to be your teacher now?” I did and he is still alive and in his nineties and although no longer my teacher remains a friend and mentor. So, I hope you can see that it is not about the pedestal or the materialistic externals. Dharma communication is about deep friendship and two way trust.
Talking Dharma – Talking Death
The only way we can actually prepare for death is to acknowledge, with integrity, that we are actually going to die. A significant part of that realization is that we have no idea when that will happen. Recognizing our own mortality and the uncertainty of its timing provides the opportunity to opens our eyes to the actuality of the situation and reduce or eliminate any worries about death and dying. Keeping that actuality at the forefront of our minds in each moment will eventually be very liberating as it offers the opportunity of actually living each moment fully as if it was your last. The problem is that although we all know that we’re going to die, we don’t know it as an internalized insightful experience. If we did, our commitment to go for refuge to the three jewels would become central to everything we think, say and do. As they say in Zen we would practice as if our hair were on fire. One way to swallow the bitter actuality of our own mortality and impermanence and realize that insightfully is to be aware of and constantly bear in mind the teaching of the four reminders.
The four reminders, or the four thoughts that turn the mind, are an important preparation for death because they turn the mind from constantly looking outward to finally looking within. Symbolically, they could be said to represent the part of the traditional story when the Buddha-to-be is purported to have made four trips outside of his compound and for the first time encountered old age, sickness, death, and the idea of renunciation. They are the perfect antidote to the times when complacency or settling down into comfort zones arise within your practice but if contemplated regularly it is unlikely that those times of doubt and indecision will not be so difficult to manage.
The first reminder is being aware of the amazing opportunity of being born a human being. This is an area that we are inclined to take for granted, especially when things are not going so well for us. But actually, even in those moments when the mind is not at peace, at least there is a mind there and we have the tools to work with it and transform it. What a total waste of human life it would be not to take up the opportunity to realize clarity.
The second reminder is that the whole world and its inhabitants are impermanent. In particular, the life of beings is like a bubble that can burst at any moment. Death, even when you are ill comes without warning. One moment you are there and the next moment you are not. All that remains is a lifeless shell, a corpse consisting of just physical matter. The most helpful way to meet that experience is with a mind that is at peace with itself so it is always helpful if your practice remains authentic.
The third reminder is that when death arrives, the quality of that experience will be defined by your mental state. This in turn is defined by the preceding thought, spoken word or action. So, paying attention at all times to the quality of our mind state and working to keep it in a helpful state will define the quality of the mind state in our death moment.
The fourth reminder is that our homes, friends, wealth and comforts are the ever present opportunity to worry because of want, not want and confusion. Just like a feast before the execution they can lead us to our death whilst clinging to the attachments to things, so we need to work to lessen our grip on our wants and focus on our need to realize peace of mind through the realization of clarity.
The purpose of these four reminders is to work with them until the mind turns away from the worries of everyday life and the madness of trying to find happiness in external experiences and the centre of our life is focused on the Dharma journey. Most of us spend our lives looking out at the world, chasing after thoughts and things. We’re distracted by all kinds of objects and rarely look into the mind that is the actual source of these objects. If we turn our mind inwards, however, we will find our way to a peaceful life and a peaceful death. Instead of being carried along with the external constructs of mind, we finally examine the internal blueprints of mind itself.
The significance of these four reminders cannot be overstated. If we could authentically take them to heart, we would probably be half way to the realization of clarity. These contemplations develop revulsion to conditioned appearances, point out their utter futility, and cause awareness to prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects. They turn the mind away from substitute gratifications and direct it toward authentic gratification, which can only be found within. The four thoughts remind us of this amazing opportunity of human life; that we are going to die; that our preceding thoughts, words and actions follow us everywhere and that the worries of this everyday world is a total waste of time. Memorize them. They will reframe your life, focus your mind, and advise you in everything you do. When a man knows he is going to be hanged in the morning it tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. What would you do if you had six months to live? What would you cut out of your life? What would you do if you had one month, one week, one day? If you do not contemplate death in the morning, the morning is wasted. If you do not contemplate death in the afternoon, the afternoon is wasted. If you do not contemplate death in the evening, the evening is wasted. The four reminders remove the waste.
We see others dying all around us but somehow feel entitled to an exemption. If we acknowledge death and use it as an advisor, however, it will prioritize our Dharma life, ignite our practice, and spur our meditation. The Buddha once said words to the effect: “Of all footprints, that of the elephant is the deepest and most supreme. Of all contemplations, that of impermanence is the deepest and most supreme.” Keep these four reminders close to mind and come to realize that life is like a candle flame in the wind. There are many practical ways to do this. Think of friends and family and consider that they are all going to die. Put pictures of dead loved ones on your desk or shrine. Put sticky notes with the word “death” or “I am going to die” inside drawers or cabinets to remind you. Read an obituary every day. Go to nursing homes, cemeteries, and funerals. The essence of Dharma practice is remembrance, whether it’s remembering to come back to the present moment or recalling the actuality of impermanence. Do whatever it takes to realize that time is running out and you really could die today. You are literally one breath away from death. Breathe out, don’t breathe in, and you’re dead.
One of the recognitions of authentic Dharma practice is that he or she finally realizes that today could be the day. Realizing impermanence is what provides the motivation for advancement along the journey. Sadly, for most their life will be spent moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. No matter how we position ourselves, no matter how comfortable we try to get, it’s all going down at some point. This teaching encourages us not to spend our lives, literally and figuratively chasing rainbows and pink unicorns. Reinvest. Use this amazing opportunity wisely. Do not waste a moment of this life. The four thoughts that turn the mind, turn it from reckless spending to wise investing. We spend so much effort investing in our future. We invest in stocks and shares, bricks and mortar, pension plans, superannuation and retirement portfolios. Cultural religious Buddhism manipulates us to invest in our much more important, promised, post-death retirement plan as being our real future and that, yet again, flies in the face of this teaching of the Buddha. Investing in some idea of a future life is like checking into a hotel for a few days and redecorating the room. What’s the point? In the face of the actuality of death our mundane wants are seen for what they are. If our want for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.
Realizing your own impermanence is the greatest gift the Dharma has to offer. It completely restructures everything and simplifies everything. Ask yourself these two questions: Do I remember at every moment that I am dying, and that everyone and everything else is, and so treat all beings at all times with compassion? Has my understanding of death and impermanence become so keen and so urgent that I am devoting every second to the development of clarity and peace of mind? If you can answer “yes” to both of these, then you really understand impermanence. These reminders may seem like a morbid preoccupation with death, but that is only because of our extreme aversion to non-existence. For most, death is the final defeat. We live in denial of death, and worry in direct proportion to this denial when death occurs. The four reminders remind us of the uncompromising actuality and prepare us to face it.
The four reminders, combined with awareness meditation, provide strength of mind that benefits ourselves, others and the world around us. Conscious awareness is stable enough to allow in the actuality, to really see it. Then when someone we know is dying, we aren’t so shaken up. We may be sad, in the sense of experiencing compassion, but we have thoroughly incorporated the notion of death to the point that it has profoundly affected our life. That is known as strength of mind. That stability naturally radiates to stabilize the mind of the dying person, which helps them when everything is being blown away. Dying people are sometimes jealous of those still alive. “Why do I have to die when everyone else keeps on living”? “It’s so unfair.” “Why me”? At that point they need to remember that those left behind are not returning to a party that lasts till infinity. Those left behind are returning to a challenging life that is filled with endless worrying. As you are dying, remember that it’s just a matter of time before everyone else does the same. All that is happening is that you are about to join the billions of others who have already left this life and so will everybody else. Those left behind are a minority. No one is going to get out of this alive. And he who dies with the most toys still dies.
Talking Dharma – Talking Worry
A helpful way of exploring worry is by understanding the six psychological mind states that are presented in the wheel of life. These are: 1. Pleasure and contentment 2. Jealousy and power 3. Unsatisfied Want 4. Physical Pain, Emotional Turmoil and Psychological Imbalance. 5. Ignorance and Unawareness 6. Potential Awareness. They represent the experiential worlds we create out of the confusion of the conditioned self-biased mind. Each of the six mind states has its own dominant preoccupation, its own pattern of hope and fear, and its own form of worry. But even when we are caught in one of these mind states, there are ways to break free from the fixations that entrap us and perpetuate our worries.
Pleasure and contentment, or as it is known in classical Buddhism, the God realm, is the worry of perfectionism. It is a mind state of refinement, meditational bliss, material pleasure, or psychological satisfaction. It is fueled by confusion led pride and ignorance, which allows you to dwell in a self-absorbed haze of me-ness. In this mind state it is like a dream come true. But just when you finally think you have everything you ever wanted, you worry that it might all be lost. Some people create their own hiding places, whether in the form of retreat centers, gated communities, or the psychological la-la land of placebo led spirituality. But to maintain such islands of perfection, you need to divert attention away from the actuality of worry. Since you don’t want your bubble to burst you have to ignore anything that threatens it. On the surface it might seem that this mind state has very little worry but when you peel back the layers and take an honest look at what is happening you will discover a fear that it will come to an end. As a result it creates a tension when you try to prolong your special experiences and try to stop them from ending. You forget that all experiences are impermanent and transitory and this prevents the mind from being at peace with itself, others and the world around it. The problem is that as soon as you create a protected area and surround it with a wall, whether it is a literal wall or a psychological wall, there will not only be constant tension but also the worry of realizing that your experience is a manufactured one, not real. When you find yourself in this mind state the work in progress is to let go of the striving, let go of the clinging and then something fresh arises. The more you pay attention to such gaps in your scheming, the more expansive is your perspective. When the more spacious and creative mind is present, that mentality of striving and clinging begins to melt away of its own accord.
Jealousy and Power, or as it is known in classical Buddhism, the Titan realm, is the worry of the rat race. It is a mind state of envy and competitiveness. In this mind state you are never satisfied with what you have as long as someone else has more. You are striving all the time, afraid to ever stop, afraid you might get passed by. You have no sense of yourself except in comparison to those who are ahead of you and those who are coming up from behind.
Once you step onto this kind of treadmill, you cannot get off. You are always competing and see everything in terms of winning and losing. Fueled by envy, you are caught up in self-interest that never slows down. If you continue to be obsessed with success and failure, with winning and losing, your physical, emotional and psychological experience will be constricted and the mind will never be able to find peace. When you find yourself in this mind state the work in progress is to bring yourself into the present awareness of that fact that living on the basis of simplicity is actually more helpful to you, others and the world around you.
Unsatisfied Want, or as it is known in classical Buddhism, the Hungry Ghost realm is the worry of never having enough. In this mind state you want more and more, yet never get enough. No matter how much money you have, you still think you are poor. There is always more money, more power, more things you can have. It is fueled by want and creates a sense of hunger in the mind that is experienced as a sense of emptiness. Without all your things around you, the things that define who you are, you can never be complete, so you pile on more and more. There is a kind of delight in having the most and the best, but there is no stopping point and no real contentment, no matter how much you have. In this mind state there is a painful contrast between inner poverty and outer wealth. The need to satisfy that inner hunger can come to dominate your life and when in this mind state the work in progress is to explore helpful ways to break that pattern and bring the inner world and outer world into greater balance, so that your appreciation of outer wealth is matched by the recognition of your inner richness.
Physical Pain, Emotional Turmoil and Psychological Imbalance, or as it is known in classical Buddhism, the Hell realm is the worry of internal warfare. In this mind state, you are always enraged. You find enemies everywhere, and you are always fighting. You are always on edge, ready to defend yourself or to lash out. You are afraid that if you relax, you will be threatened or destroyed, so you strike first if you can. You are either red hot or ice cold. Fueled by ill-will, you create wars and conflicts both large and small. You are fearful and in pain, like a cornered rat, and all you can do is attack. This mix of resentment, pain, and anger makes it hard to even breathe. Seeing the world in terms of us and them, for us and against us, keeps fueling this anger and warfare. When caught in this mind state the work in progress is to fall back into kindness for yourself and opening up to the actuality of interconnectedness.
Ignorance and Unawareness, or as it is known in classical Buddhism, the Animal realm is the worry of Habit. In this mind state you establish habits of stability that are boring and repetitive, but you lack the imagination to do anything else and are afraid to change. You are set in your ways and find new ideas threatening. You might have glimmers of inspiration to change, but laziness and inertia drag you down. You would like not to be stuck, but you keep doing the same things over and over again nonetheless. You are fueled by confusion and are afraid to rock the boat or to venture out from what is familiar, even if it is unhelpful. You create bureaucracies with incomprehensibly mindless regulations and procedures. Although a person in this mind state may appear to be calm and stable, it is more than likely an act to buffer them and protect them from facing the energy and intensity of life. The stuck quality of the ignorance and unawareness is a refuge of sorts. However, it begins to be experienced as very heavy and depressing, and you are afraid that this will never change. The worry in this mind state is not sharp but dull. Your habits of body, speech and mind seem completely solid and invincible. There is a frozen, mind-numbing energy. When you find yourself in this mind state the work in progress is to intensify your ethical practice and meditation.
Potential Awareness, or as it is known in classical Buddhism, the Human realm is the worry of insecurity. This mind state is one of passion and longing for relationship. You experience yourself as imperfect and incomplete and look for ways to fill that emptiness. When you are lonely, you try to connect, but once you make a connection, you can experience claustrophobia and disappointed. When you choose one person to connect with, you wonder whether you could have found someone better. Whatever you do, you think there might be something better that you have missed out on. In this mind state, you are fueled by want. You worry about how you are perceived by others and are somewhat obsessed with your popularity. Although you create shifting coalitions of relationships, none of them is all that stable. You are always insecure, and your mind hops all over the place. On top of it all, you think too much, which complicates everything. In this mind state you long to experience more substantiality and are afraid of your own vulnerability. If you are always looking outside yourself for some kind of confirmation, you will be worried all the time. When you find yourself in this mind state the work in progress is introspection in order that moments of spontaneous insight may arise that will show you that you need no external confirmation. You find that you do not need to second-guess yourself. You can appreciate what you are experiencing whether or not there may be something better going on somewhere else.
Underlying all our worries is the engine that keeps them going. It has the three component parts. The first and most important is the confusion of the separate self-biased mind. The second is our pre-conscious reactions of like and don’t like and then there is our habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting. If you look into your anger, poverty mentality, competitiveness, or greed, you will find them there. If you examine how you continually cycle between hope and fear, you will find they are the cause. It is an internal Mafia to which we pay protection money in every moment of existence. Once we lose our sense of interconnectedness of all things and identify with this one little part, which we label “me,” “myself,” or “I,” there will be conflict and struggle. In order to prop up and defend that “I,” we need to apply our arsenal of unhelpfulness, our grasping, ignoring, ill-will and all the rest. And once those energies are unleashed, we start doing stupid and unhelpful actions. For those actions, we reap consequences, and once again the cycle is set up, as we react to those consequences in the same unhelpful manner.
Fundamentally, until we penetrate these deeper supports for the worries we experience on the surface of life, we will continue to be tossed about by hope and fear and bounce back and forth within these six basic psychological mind states and the mind will never be at peace with itself, others and the world around it. There will be what we call the good times and bad times, but there will continue to be an undercurrent of worry in whatever we do.
Talking Dharma – Talking Responsibility
The world we experience is filtered through our senses, our memories and our conditioning. For many the world is a cruel, heartless and dangerous place. For others it is an amazing place that is beautiful, compassionate and joyous. The actuality is that it is both of these things and more. To deny that there are dangers in the world would be silly. To deny that there is no compassion in the world is equally silly. What the Buddha suggests, within his communication, is that we develop conscious awareness, the paying full attention to our thoughts, words and actions and taking 100% responsibility for them. In classical Buddhism this is called heedfulness. In secular western Buddhism we call this responsibility. From the moment we are born into this world there are only three inevitable things that are going to happen to each of us. This mind/body process that we think of as us is going to age, get sick and die. Now, we can either pretend that is not going to happen, try and divert our attention away from it, or totally deny it. But if we do it will only cause us to worry. The moment we accept that inevitability fully, we actually allow ourselves the opportunity to start taking responsibility for ourselves and start living authentically in each moment. It is really helpful to remain aware of these inevitabilities so we can come to realize that they are not dangers but just a normal part of what it means to live as a human being. As we make our way through this life we will encounter endless experiences that may trigger sickness or death. Without an on-going awareness of their inevitabilities can we really say that we are taking responsibility for ourselves? Reflecting on these three actualities prepares us to take responsibility for what we think say and do. Otherwise, we tend to lose sight of them and our responsibility level drops and our guard gets let down into an unrealistic comfort blanket and an illusion of safety. Then, when that safety is suddenly challenged by a direct experience, we end up in fear and worry ourselves to death, literally in some cases. This is not being responsible for ourselves, others and the world around us.
Quite often, in the ancient texts, we find the Buddha communicating that the basis of all our helpful qualities is responsibility. Not inherent goodness or compassion, but responsibility. He urges us to pay attention to the actuality that there are internal and external dangers and that our thoughts, speech and actions will make the difference between worrying and peace of mind. This is why he urges us to take responsibility now and not keep putting it off to some indeterminate time in the future. After all, it is not inevitable that you will actually have a future if you do not take responsibility now. It is by taking responsibility for what we think say and do, that we can develop generosity, insight and kindness. He points out that we are not inherently generous or kind because our minds are so quick to change that we’re not inherently anything, good or bad, aside from being aware. If we’re taking responsibility, we’re kind not only when others are kind to us. We’re kind because we see that kindness is the most helpful course of action, even in the face of the unkindness of others.
This could be why the Buddha told his followers, when they were ready, to go out into the forests to face some of the dangers there, so that they could overcome their complacency and begin to take responsibility in regard to the threats to their physical, emotional and psychological well-being. That way they could learn to bring out their most helpful qualities even when, especially when, confronted with the worst that the forest had to offer. In many of the ancient texts you will find stories of his followers living in solitude in the forest and discovering that in the face of hunger, sickness and dangers from wild animals, that the most helpful way to keep their minds free from worry was to take responsibility and reaffirm their commitment to go for refuge to the three jewels. Note I said when they were ready. The Buddha never forced his followers into the forest. Like a loving father who provides safety for his children during their early years, he gradually encouraged them to begin taking responsibility for themselves until he was assured that he had provided them with all the skills they needed and were ready to let go of his shirt tails and face the challenges of those inevitabilities on their own.
Safety, danger and responsibility are popular themes throughout the ancient Buddhist texts. The Buddha repeats these themes often, not only to his followers, but also to members of the public who come to hear him speak. He urges them time and time again to reflect on the actuality of the three inevitabilities and to consider what would be the most appropriate way to find safety and avoid danger. Needless to say, that his solution was taking responsibility in the form of going for refuge to the three jewels and engaging fully with the eightfold journey with integrity. So, let’s take a brief look at some of the Buddha’s communications about safety, danger and taking responsibility. According to the Buddha, safety is only assured within the awakening experience. Until that has been realized you have to accept the actuality that you will need to let go of some things that are unhelpful and only retain those things that are helpful. The world of the conditioned self-biased mind is a series of trade-offs and it is only with the development of insight that you can work out what the wise trade is. If you lose sight of this actuality you may well find yourself walking the Dharma journey in a complacent bubble of what you assume to be a responsibility free zone where you can have your cake and clarity. So he advises that people who live in complacent bubbles are the ones most likely to thrash around wildly, endangering themselves and others, when that bubble bursts. According to the Buddha, the most long lasting aspect of what you think of as you is your actions in this life. The mind/body complex is yours only until your brain stops working. All of those close to you, like family and friends, at best, are yours no longer than that. The results of your thoughts, speech and actions will carry on well past your death. That is why he suggests that we need to take responsibility for them now to ensure that the effects we have created are of help to others now and the world we leave behind. Specifically, he points out a set of five basic ethical training principles that he suggests will help you to take responsibility for the quality of your own mind state and how it affects you, others and the world around you and possibly be an inspiration to others in adopting the same set of principles within their own lives.
To experience a sense of safety in the world, the Buddha says you first have to provide safety to the entire world. He says that you do that when you live the eightfold journey and practice the five training principles with integrity, because when you take on such a responsibility you can do no intentional harm to yourself, others or the world around you. In return, you get not to have a worrying mind but can be at peace. If, however, you follow the training principles only half-heartedly, or with a lack of awareness like some kind of auto-pilot rule bound robot, or begin to use rationalization and justification to find excuses, it’ll be as effective as building a fence around your house but forgetting to hang the door in its frame. You leave the gap for worrying to enter and steal all your tools. What are those tools? Without any doubt meditation is the greatest tool in our kit. In particular the awareness of kindness and its later explorations into compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity provide the perfect opportunity to affect our thoughts, speech and actions in a way that they are going to be of help to us, others and the world around us. Combined with the awareness of the breath we can develop ways to let go of worrying in the present moment and find that neutral balance of contentment between the experiences of pleasure and pain, like and dislike, want and not want. According to the Buddha, when the mind is trained in this way, it’s like a vast lake of clean water. You can throw a lump of salt into the lake and yet still drink the water, because it’s so vast and clear. Otherwise, your mind will be like a small cup of water. The same lump of salt thrown into the cup will make the water unfit to drink. One of the areas the Buddha often talks about is the benefit of being around like-minded individuals. He suggests that hanging around too often with those who do not share our core values can be unhelpful because there is a natural tendency to be influenced by the need to be loved, liked or well thought of that is central to group think and behaviour. The danger here is not so much what others may do to you, but in what they can influence you to do. Their responsibility is theirs, even if they are unaware of it and you are responsible for you and have chosen to be aware of it. Even when you’re mistreated by others, their responsibility doesn’t become yours unless you react in an unhelpful way or reciprocate their action. Often it can be the closest people to you, your family and best friends who have the greatest influence and in this respect it presents the most significant danger. This means, that you have to train yourself not to fall for the rationalizations and justifications, or to be tempted by the rewards that some people will offer you to let go of your responsibility to develop and maintain peace of mind.
One of the difficulties we have is that we live in a world of communication and the use of words can be the thing that causes us to react and therefore cause us to worry. So, it is helpful to learn to distinguish between speech that is genuinely harmful and speech that is only harmful at a surface level. Unpleasant or unhelpful words that are intended to get you upset are harmful only on the surface. Unpleasant or unhelpful words that sink deep into your subconscious as some kind of on-going pattern are the ones that can cause long-lasting harm. By training the mind to become less reactive and more responsive it is helpful within that process to depersonalize the words. There are two basic techniques that you might find helpful. The first is to remember that human speech all over the world has always been, and always will either be kind or unkind, helpful or unhelpful, accurate or inaccurate. The actuality that someone may be saying unkind, unhelpful or inaccurate things to you right now is nothing out of the ordinary so there’s no reason to think that you’re being singled out for any special mistreatment. Understanding this means you can let go a bit and take it more in your stride. Secondly, you can tell yourself when something unhelpful is being said, “It’s just a sound making contact with the ear. It too will pass.” And just let it be that. There is no need to build any internal narratives around that, which means you do not have to react in a way that will cause you to worry. Let’s face it, you have two ears, so you’re bound to hear both pleasant and unpleasant sounds. But you can also develop discernment around how you use your ears and relate to those sounds. If you can let the words stop at the contact, they won’t present any danger and you are taking responsibility to ensure that happens.
Talking Dharma – Talking Stress
The experience of stress could be viewed as an assortment of unpleasant sensations, emotions and thoughts. We may experience it in many different ways such as pressure, anxiety, or even claustrophobia. It will be different for everybody because of the nature of our unique conditioning, but there are similarities that we can observe and learn from. Living within a modernised western culture, that is driven by performance, achievement and material worth, creates the conditions for on-going challenges that, at times, it can seem as though we are drowning in a sea of worries. At times we can become so overwhelmed by the experience it capsizes us and we go down like a sinking ship. The experience of stress can make us think we are cornered and that we have no way out. It can cause us to freeze, or it might stir up so much worry in the mind that it seems like we are choking to death. When stress is present within our experience there is no natural breath, no natural air to breathe. There is no open dimension. No is-ness. No creativity. When stress is present, what once might have seemed so simple becomes completely impossible and no matter which direction we turn there does not appear to be an escape route. With stress we become distressed. It is as though we are being pulled apart and are about to break.
When stress is present, our physical body seems to get tighter, as if it is shrinking into itself. This releases chemicals that will create the experience of fight or flight, the fear factor of the pre-conditioned, biological, nature aspect of being. Psychologically, our thinking process gets fractured and runs riot and all awareness is lost. Even the slightest irritation or experience of not want, may set us off and we may lash out in anger. Or we might withdraw into ourselves, close off, and shut down to try and avoid the experience or try to divert it into something pleasant. In that moment we forget that we can just breathe into it with acceptance and allow it to move on of its own accord because in that moment we have attached ourselves to it as ours. Within our culture there is an endless list of things to be stressed out about. It could start with the basic necessities such as paying the rent or the mortgage or keeping or finding a job to do that. But even watching the news, reading a newspaper, or following the internet can quickly move those basic concerns towards global problems such as war, famine, environmental destruction or overpopulation and migration. We may even try to justify to ourselves that it is OK to do that because it makes us a more compassionate, loving or caring person. It is as if our worrying is some kind of badge of honour that is proof of our empathy, and sensitivity.
When stress is present within our experience, we struggle to find someone or something to blame. We assume that there must be some external reason we are experiencing this and we believe that if we just remove that situation, we will be OK. If there is an obvious external cause, of course it may well be helpful to remove it. It may well be appropriate at times to stop seeing the person who we are blaming for driving us crazy. Time out may give us the opportunity to explore that belief and see through to its actuality. It may well be appropriate to stop putting ourselves in situations that we know sets us off. Again diversion in order to reflect is an appropriate thing to do. To divert without doing the introspection work just pushes around the cycle and we learn nothing from the opportunity. However, there are many situations we may not be able to do much about, no matter how stressful they may be.
Throughout Buddhist texts there are numerous teaching that set out different aspects of the worrying mind that we are calling here stress. It is emphasised in them that is it helpful to make a commitment to do what we can to improve the conditions of life for ourselves, others and the world around us based on compassionate living. To enable this, we need to detach ourselves from the worrying mind in a process that unfolds the layers and layers of stress so that we can begin to unravel some of that attachment to it. A helpful starting point on this journey is taking a look at what drives our emotions, which is the entrenched and habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting. When we do, we will come to see that because of our distracted mind we create the conditions to make stressful situation worse. Because of confusion we change neither the situation nor our attitude but just add fuel to the fire. In classical Buddhism this is referred to as the endless cycle of pleasure and pain, or the eight worldly winds of hope and fear. Hope for happiness and fear of unhappiness; hope for fame and fear of insignificance; hope for praise and fear of blame; hope for gain and fear of loss. We spend our lives trying to hold on to some things that we like and get rid of other things that we don’t like in an endless and stressful struggle.
A reasonable question to ask is what’s wrong with preferring happiness to unhappiness? Isn’t the pursuit of happiness what life is supposed to be all about? Isn’t it obvious that gain is better than loss? Of course there is nothing wrong with these ideas. But what the Buddha is asking you to explore is if it is helpful or not to move the mind away from worrying towards peace of mind. It is one thing to recognize what we would like to attract and what we would prefer to get rid of, but to use it as the basis of living a stress free life is not going to be helpful. The difficulty with the eight worldly winds is that they are opposites that keep us bouncing back and forth like a demented ping pong ball. We can’t have one without the other. When we are being blown around by the eight worldly winds the mind can only be in a state of worry because we are not content with the current experience as it is. If we are going to live life as some kind of sporting contest we will never hear the final bell or the final whistle. The first of these contests is happiness v unhappiness, pleasure v pain, worry v peace. We hope for happiness, but once we have it, fear arises, for we are afraid to lose it. Out of that fear we cling to pleasure so hard that the pleasure itself becomes a form of pain. And when worrying arises, no amount of wishful thinking makes it go away. The more we hope for it to be otherwise, the less peace there is.
The second contest is fame v insignificance. We work hard to get to the top of our game. We are hungry for confirmation from others that there is nothing wrong with us and we are OK. We’re a nice person who they can love, respect and trust. And what happens when we don’t get it? Or even when we do and we know it is only the superficiality of the other person doing the same thing? We get the hump and blame them. When the penny eventually drops how hard we have to work to live in that world of superficiality of trying to be someone special, or different, our fear of insignificance is magnified. What actually lies behind our want for fame is revealed to be a worrying of inner desolation, shallowness or even hollowness.
The third contest is praise v blame. We need to have our ego stroked constantly or we begin to have doubts about our self-worth or image. When we are not seeking to be praised for something we have said or done, we busy ourselves trying to cover up our mistakes so we don’t get caught out being something that we are not. But lets be honest here, there is never enough praise to satisfy us, and we are never free from the threat of being found lacking. Only if we are infallible, and nobody is, can we count on continual praise. So, although on the level of actuality we are always perfect as we are, the on-going struggle for the perfection of subjective reality will always end in tears of blame.
The fourth contest is gain v loss. We invest in things and situations with high hopes of permanency and substantiality. That quality of hope is so seductive because we forget that no thing is permanent or substantial in and of itself. What goes up must come down. Just as we are about to congratulate ourselves on our success, the bubble is burst and the bottom falls out. Someone close to us dies or leaves us for a younger or richer model. We lose our job. Our house goes into negative equity. Inflation wipes out or entire life savings and fear once again rises to the surface in the form of stress. Our hope has fallen apart and we are afraid that things will keep going downhill forever. Over and over, things are hopeful one moment and the next they are not, and in either case the mind will not be at peace with itself, others or the world around it and will be worrying. These cycles of hope and fear that create the eight worldly winds occupy our minds and depletes our energy. No matter what is happening to us, we think it could be better, or at least different. No matter who we are, we think we could be better, or at least different. Nothing is ever good enough and therefore we can never be at peace.
Should stress always be avoided? Can it be productive? Life within a modern western society is stressful. There is no doubt about that. It is suggested by many that contemporary life is the root cause of that stress and that we just need to accept that and get on with it as best as we can and turn to pills, potions, therapy and to the multi-billion dollar self-help spiritual woo woo placebo industry. But the Buddha provides an alternative to those things, that although for many may offer a sticking plaster of transitory comfort, offers a long-term solution. We have always had to make an effort to meet the pre-conscious drive to survive. We have always needed to feed ourselves to find shelter, and security. We have always needed to make an effort to meet the pre-conscious drive to replicate the species by finding a mate. The human world has never been the mythical Garden of Eden.
The Buddha, in his primary communication of the four principal assignments sets out an alternative that does not deny or avoid that actuality of worrying. It points to ways in which it can be seen for what it is so you can do something effective to alleviate or eradicate it. The eight-fold journey that he proposes could be said to be the productive aspect of not trying to avoid stress and the end product is the realization of peace of mind within the realization of causality. The actuality of worrying and its cause is the single question that set the Buddha on his journey at the very beginning. No matter what direction you head in within his body of work and that of all other Dharma communicators that followed him you will end up at the source realization that it is the confused, conditioned, subjective self-biased mind that creates the stress because it wants any experience to be other than it is.
Talking Dharma – Talking Practical Kindness
The first principal assignment the Buddha sets out is that we have to understand fully what worrying is, what its nature is and to realize how it is an inevitable part of what it means to be conditioned by the self-biased mind of being human. Although an integral part of that journey is all about us, it isn’t until we can recognise and empathise with the worrying of others that real progress can be made. In the traditional story of the life of the Buddha there is an example of this from an early childhood memory when he witnessed his father taking part in the annual first ploughing and sewing of the crops. As he watched the plough cut through the earth, he became aware of how much life was disrupted and destroyed in the simple act of planting food. He noticed the field mice hurrying away, the bugs running for cover and the worms being sliced in half. As he sat under the shade of a tree contemplating what he had seen, his first experience of meditative insight arose, although at the time, it is said, that he was unaware of what it was that had happened. The insight was that no matter what we do, or how we live, to survive on this earth we cannot avoid doing harm. He realized that in seeing the worrying of others it quite naturally causes us to worry. Even if we stopped eating meat and became radicalized vegans, or fruitarians, or brush the path that we walk on, or wear a face mask like the Jains, it is impossible to live on this planet as a human being without causing some degree of harm. It is suggested within classical Buddhism that this memory from childhood was the seed which later ripened at the age of 29 that set him off on his journey to find an answer as to the cause of worry and to see if it could be eradicated.
When we begin to open ourselves up to the experiences of others, we do so because we know what it is to worry ourselves and how painful that can be. Because of this, empathetic kindness arises as a natural response. The biggest problem is that within the pre-conscious, biological, nature aspect of being there is an inherent drive to avoid pain, so we tend to pretend that it isn’t happening. We suppress it and put a brave smile on our faces and when we do that, we store up harm for ourselves, others and the world around us for some possible future moment. By trying to shield ourselves from the emotional and psychological pain of worry in the present moment by rejecting it, we also avoid facing the pain we see all around us. By distracting ourselves from it, or avoiding its actuality or trying to distance ourselves from it, in effect, we distance ourselves from one another. We lose the interconnectedness that makes kindness possible.
The most helpful way there is to maintain that connection is to extend our awareness to include all of our experience, not just the parts that we are comfortable with. Meditation practice is a helpful way to work through that process of becoming aware of whatever arises in our thought process. In meditation we are learning to be open to who we are, and whatever our experience is with an acceptance of it in each moment. So meditation practice is not just about learning to concentrate, it is also a way of being kind to ourselves. It is a process of integration. By learning to accept ourselves and our experiences in meditation, we are, at the same time learning to accept other people. This is more than just putting up with people. It is about understanding that they are no different than you when it comes to the experience of worry. This acceptance is the tender and gentle process of opening ourselves to the actuality of interconnectedness, that common ground of worrying. Kindness really only begins at this immediate, personal level of experience. By developing an attitude of acceptance and fundamental friendliness, we can lessen not only our own fear and worry, but also that of the people around us. We can actually shift the atmosphere in the direction of friendliness and kindness, and in that way be of benefit to ourselves, others and the world around us. When we do this others notice, there is an inspiration opportunity here. A little seed of our own is planted and provides an opportunity for the growth of another.
Talking Dharma – Talking Equanimity
Equanimity is the foundation of wisdom and is expressed as compassion. Superficially, it is experienced as a dry neutrality, or a cool aloofness, but it's actuality produces a radiance and warmth of being. Contrary to the criticisms of those who do not know this experience, it is not about indifference, coldness, a lack of emotion, boredom or hesitation. Equanimity is an expression of calmness and contentment with the way things are, as they are, in any moment of existence. The Buddha describes equanimity in the ancient texts as the abundant mind, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will. Equanimity is the ability to see without being caught by what we see which results in peace of mind and in Pali is known as upekkha which translates as to look over, in terms of seeing things as they are and not how we believe them to be. Equanimity can also refer to the ease that comes from seeing the bigger picture, to see with patience, to see with understanding. For example, when we know not to take words spoken against us personally, we are less likely to react to what was said. Instead, we remain at ease or within equanimity.
Another aspect of equanimity is represented by the Pali word tatramajjhattata. Tatra, means there. Majjha means middle, and tata means to stand or to pose. Put together, the word becomes to stand in the middle of all this. Equanimity, therefore means being in the middle and refers to balance, to remaining centered in the middle of whatever is happening. This balance comes from inner strength or stability. The strong presence of inner calm, well-being, confidence, vitality, or integrity can keep us upright, like a ballast keeps a ship upright in strong winds. As inner strength develops, equanimity follows. The experience of equanimity could be compared to the love that a grandparent has for their grandchild. It is very different from the relationship they had with their own children. Having gained some wisdom in the field of parenting they tend not to get caught up in the drams of their grandchildren’s lives so easily as they did with their own children. The love is there but the attachment to the drama isn’t.
The development of equanimity is said to be the perfect protection from the eight worldly winds: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. Becoming attached to or excessively elated with success, praise, fame or pleasure sets up the conditions for worrying to arise when the winds of life change direction. Success on any level is great and there is nothing wrong with that, but it can easily lead to arrogance which possibly sets up us to not be successful in future challenges and that will cause us to worry. Becoming personally attached to a need for praise can give rise to conceit and the energy we need to use to maintain that conceit drains us physically, emotionally and psychologically. Identifying ourselves with failure, we may experience a sense of incompetence or inadequacy. Reacting to physical pain, we may become discouraged. If we understand, realize or experience that our sense of inner well-being is independent of the eight winds, we are more likely to remain contented or the mind will be at peace with itself, others and the world around it.
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