We are not currently meeting 'in-person'

We are not currently meeting 'in-person.'
I have made the difficult decision to stop holding our in-person Sunday night meetings - you can read more about this in my post here. I will be continuing to post weekly content here and in our newsletter. Do remember to sign up for the 'Metta Letter' newsletter below as I will be sending out weekly meditations there.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

First Time?

First Time?

Every year, at around this time, I have a minor internal struggle trying to decide what is the latest time that I can get away with wishing someone 'Happy New Year.' The first week of January is a given. After that, well, it depends. After the end of January it is definitely too late. Today is 31st of January so I am pushing it a bit. But it is technically still Lunar New Year so here I go:

Happy New Year everybody!

It has been about six weeks since I last sent a 'Metta Letter,' - my apologies for that. I have needed to regroup a bit and during that time I have been thinking about how best to focus future letters. I think I have some ideas about how to position these going forward. I know that you all get a metric tonne of these in your inbox, many of which are awesome and from far worthier writers that me. So I want to make sure that in some way I am adding something of value and substance, with maybe a viewpoint or angle that isn't covered in other newsletters. I think I know how to do that going forward, in a way that is consistent with the themes I have been covering but which has a clearer direction. Some of the topics I cover may seem a little random, but there is a theme and a viewpoint - it has just taken me until the last few weeks to realize it myself!

I'll share that direction with you in my next letter - hopefully it will resonate with you. I am grateful for the support you have given me as I have been writing these over the last few years, and hope that I can continue to provide a different voice to help you on your path. But now, to the letter itself.

This week I have been thinking a lot about 'first times.'

I am old enough to remember the first time I heard Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio. I also remember the first time I saw the video for it. And I remember knowing that this was something special, that somehow I was witnessing something unlike anything I had ever heard or seen before. There was a buzz around it - it came just as punk was in its ascendancy and flew in the face of that by being something operatic and heavily produced - the antithesis of what was going on in popular music. For those of you younger than me (probably most of you), Bohemian Rhapsody might feel like something that has just 'always been around.' But if you can remember the before-and-after, you will know that there was something that changed, something that moved, when you heard it for the first time.

Now, I acknowledge, maybe I take music more seriously than many (or than I should), but I am sure that there is something that you can point to that had this nature of 'the time before' and 'the time after.' Maybe it was a book, or a play, or a passage, or meeting someone, or even learning a fact. Many commentators have talked about how, on Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 took the stunning Earthrise picture from beyond the moon, showing the beauty and fragility of the Earth in a way humans had never seen before. Truly a 'time before' and 'time after' moment, credited by many as the start of a deeper consciousness of our responsibility to this planet.

I experienced one of these moments myself a few days ago. Now I am going to prefix this by saying that the work that was such a unique experience to me may not have the same resonance for you - that is not the point. But I did this week experience a work that, for me, was a real 'time before' and 'time after' moment. Maybe not quite at the Bohemian Rhapsody level, but at least at the 'O Superman,' 'Stan,' or Shostakovich's '8th Quartet' level. Again, for me.

The work is by an artist called Ren and is titled 'Hi Ren.' The piece is hard to describe, as it is a mix of song, poetry, rap and guitar in a structure quite unlike anything else. If you follow any internet music you will likely have come across the piece yourself, as since it was released in December it has exploded online, with millions of views and streams and it being shared everywhere. It has hit a chord with viewers and listeners partly because of it's unique structure, and partly because it addresses struggles with mental health in a way that resonates with anyone who has experienced even the smallest amount of self-doubt. It is a piece that is both disturbing and triumphant at the same time.
(note, if you do decide to watch it be prepared for some raw exploration of these themes and some bad language)

But again, this essay isn't about the work itself, but how it left me feeling. This feeling of having never experienced anything like it before. And then the feeling of now having experienced it. First time. Before and after.

It's actually quite a strange feeling - and the interesting thing is that it a common one. The internet is full of so-called 'reaction videos,' where some person - sometimes famous or noteworthy, sometimes not - posts a video of them watching something, so you can see on their faces how they react, and they can tell you what that 'first time' feels like for them. I have to admit I watched quite a few of these reaction videos to Ren's piece just to live vicariously through their experience of their own 'first time.'

There was a part of me that wanted to be able to experience the 'first time' again, something I knew I could not do. Or could I?

Contemplating this brought to mind Shunryu Suzuki's teaching “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” The question was, could I experience this piece with beginner's mind? So I tried. And sure enough, I found I could approach it with openness and awareness that almost - not quite - felt like I was experiencing it for the first time. And it underlined for me the role we play ourselves with art, how works change when we can approach them with presence and awareness.

These qualities that we cultivate in meditation can pervade our whole lives. Whether we are experiencing art, learning about the world, sweeping the floor or cleaning the toilet. We can be aware, open and present.

Just like the first time.

Metta, Chris.

PS: There's an internet meme that runs around taken from the wonderful Coen Brothers movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The meme shows a still of the actor James Franco standing on the gallows with a noose around his neck, asking his fellow noosed prisoner "First Time?" It's a very funny part of the movie, and makes for a very useful meme.

PPS: I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the idea of 'beginning again' in meditation, specifically for the New Year. Please feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way helps.



Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash









Sunday, December 11, 2022

Be Not Afraid

Be Not Afraid

There are some fun (and somewhat disturbing) memes going around at the moment where people try to produce images (and in one extreme case a taxidermy sculpture) that recreate what angels might look like, based on how they are described in the Bible. I'm not going to link to any of them directly as while fun some of them are the stuff of nightmares. There is a reason why in the Bible accounts the first thing they say is 'Be Not Afraid!"

We are at the time of the year where the classic western depictions of angels appear everywhere - usually as beautiful, buff, glowing humans (often female) who just happen to have magnificent wings. This certainly doesn't jibe with what the Old Testament prophets said they saw, but it is much less scary for the children. When I was a kid in England there was a blurry line between angels and fairies, and we would have a blonde doll (usually inexpertly made from a toilet roll with a wool wig and cardboard wings) perched on top of the Christmas tree. This was referred to interchangeably as the 'fairy' on top of the tree or the 'angel.' Of course what is interesting here is that the doll looked nothing like an old English folk-tale description of a fairy either! It seems like to be acceptable to be brought into the home, and so as not to frighten the Children, the image has to be sanitized and made a lot less scary - whether it's a fairy or an angel.

The reason for angels being so prevalent at this time of the year comes from their role in the traditional Christmas story as recounted in the Gospel of Luke, when an angel (having of course started with 'Fear Not...') announces the birth of Christ and ends with:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

For those of us who wish to cultivate metta in our own lives the angel's declaration should resonate. Metta is usually translated as 'lovingkindness' but also often as 'goodwill' as a universal, unconditional love for all beings.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu explains why 'goodwill' may be a better rendering of metta like this:

[...] These different ways of expressing metta show that metta is not necessarily the quality of lovingkindness. Metta is better thought of as goodwill, and for two reasons. The first is that goodwill is an attitude you can express for everyone without fear of being hypocritical or unrealistic. It recognizes that people will become truly happy not as a result of your caring for them but as a result of their own skillful actions, and that the happiness of self-reliance is greater than any happiness that comes from dependency.

As someone who was brought up in, but who no longer follows, the Christian tradition I like to gravitate towards this traditional message of goodwill to all people at this time of the year. Out of all the Christmas messages, this is the one that resonates for me most.

So, whether they are scary balls of feathers and eyes or beautiful humanoids, let's at least join with the angels in wishing goodwill to all people this season. And remember, like a puppy, metta isn't just for Christmas!

Metta, Chris.

PS. Two years ago I wrote a longer essay on this idea of metta and goodwill - you can read it here.

PPS.  Note the verse from Luke isn't without controversy among Christian theologians, as some question the universal nature of 'good will.' I am not at all qualified to comment on the Christian interpretation of that, but having done a little reading around it I still like to keep with the traditional reading.

PPPS. I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all men' - feel free to use it in your practice however you wish.

 

Bible verse from Luke 3:14 (KJV)

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu - Metta Means Goodwill - Retrieved from
https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/BeyondAllDirections/Section0007.html December 20th 2020  

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash







Sunday, December 4, 2022

Jingle

Jingle

It's December already, and the inevitable Christmas lights, decorations and music are already around us. As always, I have a fairly ambiguous relationship with all this - I find some of the decorations fun and coming out of a couple of years of lock-down the celebratory aspect feels good this year. The side that gives me pause is the incessant commercialization and equating a religious / seasonal celebration with the need to buy stuff.

Anyway, I am not going to Grinch-out on that subject now. Instead I am going to share a Grinch-like thought that only occurred to me for the first time last year. My apologies if this is something you have always known, or if in some way it offends you, but around this time last year I realized something that shocked me to the core:

The song "Jingle Bells" has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas.

The realization came to me as I was singing the song over the phone to my Mother. Now, I will ignore for now the reasons why I was singing to my mum over the phone, but let's just say it was a bit of a tradition. And this particular day I had chosen 'Jingle Bells.' And as I made my way through the words, I realized that they had nothing to do with Christmas, or Santa, or Reindeer, or anything else Christmassy at all.

And so I looked it up, and found out that, sure enough, "Jingle Bells" is not a Christmas song at all. The all-knowing Wikipedia describes the song like this:

"Jingle Bells" is one of the best-known and most commonly sung American songs in the world. It was written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893) and published under the title "The One Horse Open Sleigh" in the autumn of 1857. It has been claimed that it was originally written to be sung by a Sunday school choir for Thanksgiving, or as a drinking song.

So, a Thanksgiving song or Drinking song (I suppose those aren't mutually exclusive). The words don't even have anything to do with Christmas - they are more about a young courting couple taking the opportunity to be together away from others. The second verse goes:

A day or two ago
I thought I'd take a ride
And soon, Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated by my side,
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And then we got upsot.

And the song ends, as Wikipedia summarizes, with the narrator giving "advice to a friend to pick up some girls, find a faster horse, and take off at full speed."

So why am I bringing this up? Am I about to go on a crusade to get the song removed from the canon of traditional Christmas Carols?

No, not at all, and if you asked me today if I considered "Jingle Bells" a Christmas Carol I would actually answer 'yes.' Even though it has nothing intrinsically to do with Christmas.

Why do I say this? Because the notion of being a Christmas Carol is purely a social construct. Something is a Christmas Carol not because of it's essential make-up, but because it is generally accepted as one. We can question the meteorological accuracy of "In the Bleak Midwinter" and still consider it a Christmas Carol. Christians can question the Theology of "Jerusalem" but it is still a hymn. "Jingle Bells" is a Christmas song because enough people have decided it is so.

While this is a bit of a silly (hopefully fun) example, this understanding that much of what we believe to be solid and concrete is actually only dependent on the surrounding causes is central to our meditation practices. We meditate on the five aggregates and we find that they are 'empty' - not in the sense that they don't exist but in the sense that they exist only in dependence on other things.

The Buddha actually used music as an example of this in one of my favorite passages (I have written about it before here), that of The King and the Lute:

"Suppose there were a king or king's minister who had never heard the sound of a lute before. He might hear the sound of a lute and say, 'What, my good men, is that sound — so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling?' They would say, 'That, sire, is called a lute, whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' Then he would say, 'Go & fetch me that lute.' They would fetch the lute and say, 'Here, sire, is the lute whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' He would say, 'Enough of your lute. Fetch me just the sound.' Then they would say, 'This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It's through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.'

"Then the king would split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces. Having split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces, he would shave it to splinters. Having shaved it to splinters, he would burn it in a fire. Having burned it in a fire, he would reduce it to ashes. Having reduced it to ashes, he would winnow it before a high wind or let it be washed away by a swift-flowing stream. He would then say, 'A sorry thing, this lute — whatever a lute may be — by which people have been so thoroughly tricked & deceived.'

When we take apart anything - a lute, a Christmas Carol, our selves - we find that there is nothing that can exist in isolation, that everything exists in dependence on everything else. You will not find the sound by grinding up the lute. You will not find the 'Christmas Carol-ness' of "Jingle Bells" in the words, or the music, but only in the collective minds of the millions of people who sing it at Christmas.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on the story of the lute - feel free to use it in whatever way is useful to you in your practice.



 

"Vina Sutta: The Lute" (SN 35.205), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.205.than.html .

 

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash









Sunday, November 20, 2022

Jagged

Jagged

I am going to start today with an apology to all of you reading who are under forty or so. I am going to be referencing some music from the nineties, and it is likely that you will have no clue what I am talking about - so I will be sure to explain the relevance to our meditation practices. I've got you.

I am also going to apologize to those of you over forty too - the song I am going to reference is twenty seven years old. There is a significant possibility that the fact it was that long ago will feel like a bit of a shock to you. Think of it as a free extra lesson in mortality. You're welcome.

Anyway, yesterday I played an album I hadn't listened to in over twenty years - Canadian singer/songwriter Alanis Morisette's1995 work "Jagged Little Pill." Now, I love music from all genres and era's, and often listen to older works, but I hadn't listened to this one for a long time. On release it was a huge success and dominated alt-radio for the next couple of years. It was definitely an album of its time, something very much 'of' the period. So, while I used to play it a lot back then, it definitely fell out of rotation sometime around the turn of the Millennium.

So why was I digging back in the archives yesterday to resurface this bout of nostalgia? Well, more recently there has been a Tony-nominated Broadway musical based on the songs from the album. Last night I was fortunate enough to get to see it here in town, so before we went I was refreshing my memory of the music once again. The musical turned out to be a lot of fun, but that isn't what this letter is about - I want to talk about just one second in the opening song on the album.

The first track is titled "All I Really Want." It's quite a banger, with a driving drum riff and evocative lyrics - and is a great way to set the scene for the following songs. It was a big success as a single, and got a lot of radio play. But there is a small detail of the song that stood out to me the first time I heard it and still fascinates me to this day. At one point she sings:

Why are you so petrified of silence?
Here, can you handle this?

And everything stops. No instruments, no anything. Silence. Complete dead air.

I've measured it, it is only for a little more than a second, but it still comes as a shock and feels much longer. The contrast from the driving rhythm to nothing really gives you whiplash. Anyone who works in radio will tell you that dead air is a nightmare, so to release a (commercial) song with intentional dead air in it was quite brave.

But then the song comes back, with the question:

Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you're gonna die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?

I think we can all identify with this. I am sure that the very first time you meditated you went through some version of this, not knowing how to handle the silence.

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called "Don't Wait: Pause," inspired by David Cain's wonderful essay "How to Walk Across a Parking Lot." Learning to work with silence can be hard but is ultimately a key part of our practice.

I have linked below a fully guided thirty minute meditation on "Don't Wait: Pause," where we work on silence by moving our mindset from 'waiting' for the time to end to 'pausing' and being present. It's a lot longer than one second! If you wish feel free to use it in your meditation practice. Whatever you do, I hope that in the coming week you can recognize the moments of silence and, rather than waiting for the next distraction, practice being present.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. One of the best known songs on the album is "Isn't it Ironic," a song where she list a number of unfortunate things that could happen and declares them 'ironic.' Despite it's success the song has also been widely ridiculed for the simple fact that this isn't what 'irony' means, and that what se is describing is just plain misfortune. Even the musical references the fact that this is a misuse of the term. My own feeling is that if she had used the word 'dukkha' instead of 'ironic' she would have nailed it. Maybe not as catchy but far more accurate. What do you think?



Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash



Sunday, November 13, 2022

Soggy, Not Soggy

Soggy, Not Soggy

The weather this weekend has been lovely - cold, crisp and clear. Possibly my favorite time of the year. Of course this won't last, soon we will inevitably get that half-mist-half-rain that threatens to soak you through even though it hardly seems like it is raining. I was born and brought up in Southern England and now live in the Pacific Northwest, and the one thing they both have in common is that the weather can be described in just one word. Soggy.

I think soggy is a great word, one of those words that speaks to a shared experience. You probably have a specific image of your own, maybe of long wet grass or trying to read a map in the rain or getting back home from a walk after an unexpected downpour or getting out of a tent in the early morning with everything covered in dew. It is one of those evocative words that naturally causes our minds to jump to a specific experience.

The Buddha didn't want his monks to be soggy. Now, remember the monks lived a life that was largely spent outside, and as I mentioned last week they lived in an area where for several months of the year there was intense rainfall. So the monks knew all about being soggy, and just like us they probably had very specific memories and images that came up when they were exhorted not to be soggy.

There is even a 'Soggy Sutta,' the Avassuta Sutta. I know, it's a great name and one that makes me smile. This sutta takes place in a brand new, luxurious hall that the locals had just built and that they had invited the Buddha to teach in. After the locals had left to return to their own houses the Buddha asks the Venerable Maha Moggallana to give a dhamma talk to his fellow monks. Now I can only guess that the fact that they were in this dry hall protected from the elements inspired Ven. Moggallana to use the simile of being soggy. So what does it mean to be 'soggy?' Moggallana tells us:

And how is one soggy? There is the case where a monk, when seeing a form via the eye, is, in the case of pleasing forms, committed to forms and, in the case of displeasing forms, afflicted by forms. He remains with body-mindfulness not present, and with limited awareness. And he does not discern, as it actually is present, the awareness-release & discernment-release where those evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen cease without trace.

He repeats this for perceiving sounds, smells, taste, touch and thoughts.

What he is saying is that we are 'soggy' when we perceive these things and allow ourselves to be caught up by the pleasant things and aversion to the unpleasant things, and while doing so we fail to be truly present and are unaware of what is really going on. This is being soggy.

So how does Moggallana suggest we avoid being 'soggy?'

And how is one not soggy? There is the case where a monk, when seeing a form via the eye, is not, in the case of pleasing forms, committed to forms nor, in the case of displeasing forms, afflicted by forms. He remains with body-mindfulness present, and with immeasurable awareness. And he discerns, as it actually is present, the awareness-release & discernment-release where those evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen cease without trace.

So not-sogginess comes about by not getting caught up in the pleasant, or in aversion to the unpleasant, and by retaining presence and awareness.

And that, of course is what we practice. To be present, aware and not caught up in the whirlwind of the things we perceive and experience. To not be soggy.

So whatever the weather brings you this coming week, wherever you are in the world and whatever you experience, I wish you all to be not-soggy.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. As an aside, in the middle of the sutta Ven. Moggallana goes into a metaphor of how Mara - the personification of spiritual unskillfulness, death and evil - can gain entry by burning down a dry grass house but not a clay house - interesting because it is a close parallel to the parable of the wise man in the Christian tradition and, of course, the traditional fairy tale of the three little pigs. Think Mara as Big Bad Wolf! You can read it in the full sutta, though I have to say Moggallana can definitely be accused of mixing metaphors with sogginess and resistance to fire! The message remains though of the need to be structurally sound, built from sound materials and 'not soggy.'

 P.P.S. Below I have linked a fully guided meditation on staying present - feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.



"Avassuta Sutta: Soggy" (SN 35.202), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.202.than.html .

Photo by Rebecca Campbell on Unsplash