Not too big or too small

File:Glacier scratched pebble.JPG

Modern science is finding out that a lot can be learned from contemplative traditions, both in the East, as seen in Ajahn Sucitto’s quote this morning, and in the West, as can be seen in monastic orders like the Cistercians both here at Bolton Abbey in Ireland or all around the world. They both emphasize the health benefits of sitting still, which has effects on brain function, even in small doses.

The claim…that stillness of body leads to stillness of mind is not the exclusive preserve of Indian traditions: the desert fathers maintained that simply sitting still, preferably on or close to the ground, would greatly aid their attempts to keep the mind focused and thus resist the distracting chatter of demons. To sit still is to be present, and fully attentive to what is. How often do we really give our undivided attention to the things we do, or the people we are with? To be present is to accept what is,  as it is, without wishing things were otherwise, or imagining that if only they were, then everything would be so much better. It is to be able to pick up a pebble and see that it is perfect – just as it is – neither too big or too small. 

Nicholas Buxton, Tantalus and the Pelican

photo b navaz : basalt pebble scratched by glacier erosion

Moving forward in spite of our fears


I drove back from some meetings yesterday across the Curragh, which is unique in Ireland as a flat open plain of land which has existed for thousands of years as uncultivated land, nowadays used for grazing.  It is without fences, so the sheep roam freely, and sit at the side of the road, or, as was the case yesterday, simply wander out in front of the car without any regard for safety or “rules”. It was interesting to see them behaving without fear because of their familiarity with traffic and because they have become used to the freedom of the area, having grown up in flocks where this “courage” was normal.  Most of our fearful behaviour is learnt, often due to frightening responses or lack of encouragement when we were young, or simply by being in proximity with people whose dominant narrative was fearful.  Knowing where they originate is less important than recognizing their presence in us as adults, where they frequently operate as thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that we may not be aware of or simply think are inevitable.

We are more addicted to fear than to fearlessness. Notice how much of the day you hold tightly to your fears, especially the fear of the loss of control. All of our “what if” thinking falls into this category: “What if I don’t do it right?” “What if it’s painful?” “What if I look bad?“ These thoughts are based on wanting to control some imagined future more than on what’s happening now. It’s crucial to see and to label them with the question: “What is my most believed thought right now?”

After seeing the mental constructs, we just sit, experiencing what’s happening right now, aware of the intense physical sensations of anxiety — the tightness, the queasiness, the narrowing down. We might ask the practice question, “What is this moment?” What happens when we do this? Finding the answer is what practice is really about.

Again, the simplicity and clarity of practice amounts to this: first, we must see through the mental process, dropping the story line of “me.” What is the story line of “me”? It’s the addiction to comfort and thoughts, to our self-judgments and emotions, to our identities and our fears.

Ezra Bayda

Moving toward wholeness, not perfection

This part of Ireland has quite a lot of interesting early Christian remains,   so last weekend I visited the ruins of the monastic settlement in Castledermot.  It is a site which is left somewhat untended, so that the crosses and tombs have a certain craggy beauty in a natural setting.  Rough stones, some seeming unfinished.  And yet, unfinished or ongoing does not mean “not right”, much as we tend to prefer tidyness and a clear direction or order.  We often think we have to be the finished product, or have everything resolved and clear, so that other people will give us the feedback that we are doing OK.  Seeing this “lack of completion” reminded me of these words from  Jung  – which echo the idea from Pema Chodren posted last Friday. We never really arrive at “perfection” (even though the mind thinks in terms of it) but rather at a wholeness which is more like a continual “coming together and falling apart”.  When we give up that notion of  the idealized life we wish we had, we allow ourself to work with the life we actually have.  Each moment may not be perfect, but it is, in some way, complete.

The realization of the self….leads to a fundamental conflict, to a real suspension between opposites …and to an approximate state of wholeness that lacks perfection. . . . The individual may strive after perfection . . . but must suffer from the opposite of his intentions for the sake of his completeness.

Jung, Christ, A Symbol of the Self,

photo of ancient Celtic cross Castledermot, Ireland, taken from dialogue ireland website.

Grumbling and complaining

Not far from where I live now is the Cistercian Abbey at Moone, where the monks keep an established routine of prayer and silence starting at 4.15 in the morning until Night Prayer at 20.15. On Monday  Fr Ambrose spoke about the human capacity for grumbling and complaining, as he reflected on a passage in the Old Testament where the people of Israel began to complain about their life in the desert, even though they had just been freed from a life of slavery in Egypt.  They contrasted their life now, even with freedom,  to their life in the past, and their thinking mind – which does not need much stimulus – sprang into action:  “Think of the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic!”.  As Ambrose said, this reveals a persistent behaviour in our human nature, and one that does not always lead to greater happiness or inner peace.

It would seem that comparing ourselves with others evolved as a necessary survival skill. When there were scarce resources and ever-present dangers, it was necessary to see who was stronger, who were the potential allies and threats,  and who could ultimately kill you. This survival necessity became deeply embedded in our consciousness as an alertness, a certain vigilance. However, how that useful skill actually manifests itself is in the mind’s tendency to generate comparing thoughts with others or with other times in our life, just as the people of Israel did. We can find ourselves making comparison judgments about  who is smarter, prettier or richer; who has a fitter body or a better car. Or we compare ourselves to a better version of ourselves, one who is more disciplined, who does not procrastinate, who should be doing better, who is getting things done faster.  The world of advertising and the media likes to nurture this sense of dissatisfaction, and therefore our minds have been acclimatised to achieving the latest, the better-than, the newest model, ideals that have a sense of compulsion in them  For example, here in Ireland the car registration plates for the year 2013 have been split into two, 131 for the first six months and 132 for months starting with July. The desire to show others that you have a newer car, with a 132 registration plate, seems to have worked, as sales are up by 132% on last years July figures.

This grumbling normally starts as some sort of unease, which the mind interprets as something wrong and then gets to work. So the uncomfortable feelings gets interpreted in terms of things should be better. The mind likes to project how my self could be and moves away from working with how things actually are.  Immediately,  thoughts are generated, a range of possibilities and alternatives.  It would seem that we are always seeking new becomings rather than resting in the space where we actually  are. Through our thinking minds we create plenty of ways to  get away, to become some thing else.  This normally means that we become dissatisfied and need either to get something different, or to get away from something else.

This can be quite subtle and arise instinctively. Frequently it is dressed up as a laudable need to improve ourselves or get our lives or careers moving forward.  I notice this in myself at this time of change, when not everything goes according to the schedule in the mind and I find it hard to stick with how things actually are, not as I think they should be. So grumbling and doubt sets in.  However, all this does is take me away from how this moment or my  life is,  and thus causes suffering.  It does not allow us accept ourselves as we actually are.

It is good to shift from believing the content of these thoughts, to noticing the continual process of generating them. The mind will always compare.  The Buddha drew attention to this by stating that life has an ‘unsatisfied’ sense. Ambrose said that it seems to be in our nature. Noticing the comparing mind is therefore a good practice on the way towards reducing stress and being happy in our own skin. If we spot these thoughts for what they are – mere perceptions and judgments of the mind – then they have less capacity to pull us out of the moment. Outside of our mind, the relative concept of “better” has no sense.  So next time we notice ourselves grumbling, see if you can inquire into the process and stay with the original sense of unease, without making it into a story about how your life is going. 

Stories of who we are

portmarnock sun

The arrogant mind never stops looking for identity and  this identity always defines itself through attributes: “the beautiful  one”, “the smart one”, “the creative one”,  “the successful one”… We are always searching for something to be.

Dzigar Kongtrul Light Comes Through

Any time you visit a new country – or move to one, as is my case – your senses are heightened and a lot of impressions are made, simply because things are often done differently or in new ways. And sometimes we draw comparisons, or make judgments, such as “it was done better there” or “this is not so good”. It seems that the mind is always trying to fit our current experience into some kind of story, and likes to use comparisons to guide itself in that. It prefers a coherent narrative. We are always thinking about things such as where we are going, where we’ve come from, what we’re going to do. So when, the other day, I got a mail from a friend asking “What is it like to be back in Ireland”, I noticed that the mind immediately moved to present a response, even though it was too early to say anything. We like our identities to be defined, and so a story about our life is always there in the background. What I notice is that these stories can frequently put us under pressure and reflect expectation which we, or others, place on ourselves.

However, what is clear to me these days is that our practice in life is about dropping the habit of identifying with our limited and limiting stories which are often rooted in fear and instead about sticking closer to the confidence of our true nature and what the present moment brings. So a huge part of our meditation practice is relating to our experience in a fluid, non-fixed sense. Intellectually this is easy to see – we are, at all levels, constantly evolving and growing. On a physical level, we are always in process, changing every time new food is taken in,  with each breath we take, and as the body changes with growth and age. What we see, if we look closely, is a constant state of flux. Knowing this in an experiential sense is harder – we have to practice applying this to our experience and to whatever passes through the mind in the form of thoughts or emotions. This helps us to see life as  a series of moments of consciousness arising in succession, one at a time and then falling away.

So in this succession of experiences in every moment, and every day,  does it help us to try to establish a solid identity or attach categories to our experience? On one level I have found that is not and we are  actually not wishing for one. At any moment we have a working story of who we are, and maybe even have more than one. If we bring awareness to these stories we notice how they frequently create separation and suffering, as we often rush to defend the “self” created by them. We place a lot of energy into keeping solid this image – this concept –   of ourselves, and less energy into directly relating to our experience, moment by moment. If we do not  hook into,  or identify with,  many of the passing moods and thoughts which arise and fall away, a lot of our experience become easier, and  we are in a better position to welcome whatever happens. We find it easier to not define ourselves by our roles, our status, our relationships and our possessions, and consequently are not as threatened when these things change. Letting go of the story means that it is easier to give up on the expectations that we bring to each event and harder to see our “identity” as threatened,  or our life path not working out as “intended” , since we have given up on having that predetermined end. It means that we recognize and work better with the continually changing nature of experience and fight with it less. Holding this aspect of our self more loosely ironically means that our deepest self is more content.