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.

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



Sunday, November 6, 2022

Fall Back

Fall Back

About fifteen years ago I headed down to the local yoga studio where I was leading the regular Sunday evening sit. When I got there I was the first there as usual, and I opened up and set out my cushion and sat waiting for the others to come.

In those days we had a small but loyal group, but our numbers had be dwindling. I had told myself that I would keep leading the group for as long as people came. But this particular Sunday seven o'clock came and no-one had arrived. I decided to just sit on my own for the hour and then go back home.

But around twenty to eight I heard a kerfuffle in the reception area and the hushed but happy voices of a few people arriving. Confused I stood up and went out to meet them, and they greeted me normally as if nothing was happening. It was at that point that I twigged that the clocks had gone back and, it appeared, I was the only one who had not realized! Around half a dozen people turned up, and yes I did get some ribbing when I told them what had happened.

The clocks went back here today. Nowadays it is harder to make the mistake I did that year with our phones and computers, but it is still possible to get confused, and it is still common for our body clocks to not want to make the change. I'm not going to get into the clock-change argument, but suffice to say I won't be upset if we abandon the process completely as other countries are beginning to do.

One positive thing the clock changing does do for me is to mark a seasonal change. This year has been weird in this area due to the abnormal weather patterns (snow in April - 80° in October) but even so this weekend has felt like a shift as we enter the darker season.

I have written before about how I like to follow the tradition of many cultures in the spring of thinking of new birth and new beginnings. In the fall I like to follow the return to the earth, to reconnect with nature, to reassess as we 'hunker down' for the cold and wet.

This idea of allowing our practice to follow the practicalities of the seasons is of course nothing new, and almost all traditions have some version of it. The Buddha in his day instigated what we now call the 'Rains Retreat' or 'Rains Residence,' a period of three months from roughly July to October. This corresponded with the local monsoons, a time when travel was dangerous to the traveler, to crops and to animals. So the monks committed to stay in one place and this formed a central part of the monastic year. Nowadays many traditions follow the same pattern but sometimes translated to match the local climate - so for example Plum Village in France practice their retreat between September and December.

However we practice we can use the rhythms of the seasons to inspire us - and to return us to an awareness of the world around us. What I like about the concept of the Rains Retreat is that while on the one hand it's roots were immensely practical, the requirement to not travel and stay in one place is a wonderful opportunity to refresh, renew and reconnect. For me, I find that this time is an excellent time to practice finding some stillness. I have linked below a fully guided meditation on this that you can use in your own practice if you wish.

Metta, Chris.

PS. Those of you who have been reading this letter for a while will know that I have been traveling and had other commitments for a number of weeks. Thank you for your patience while I have been gone! It has been a mix of family, pleasure and work travel and commitments. There have been high highs and low lows and plenty of opportunity to practice equanimity - not that I always managed to! I am glad now that I can stay in one place for a while!



Photo by Abdul A on Unsplash








Thursday, September 22, 2022

Plans

Plans

It was my plan to send out this letter on Sunday. I had a great theme in mind, and the time to write it - but...

Well you know. As the famous first line of Burns' poem goes:

The best laid plans of mice and men...

Only it doesn't. It's actually not the first line - it's right in the middle of his poem 'To A Mouse,' and the actual words are:

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

OK, so not so far off. And of course we all know the next line, don't we? Don't we? It's a favorite pub-quiz question after all. And it's on the tip of your tongue... I'll give you the actual next line later in this letter.

But back to the subject in hand. Plans. Or my lack of discipline in executing my plan. Truth be told, I empathize with the great author Douglas Adams when he observed:

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

So here I am on a Wednesday morning, writing what should have been (and could have been) written on Sunday - and writing it just before I have to head out to the airport to get on a plane.

There's a great TED talk by Tim Urban called "Inside the mind of a master procrastinator." It's a really funny and insightful talk, and I highly recommend watching it. I am going to spoil it a bit by telling you the main points of the talk: firstly, that we tend to put things off until a big enough, scary enough deadline (such as a flight out the country) comes up; and secondly that some things never get done because there doesn't seem to be a deadline. But, as he points out, our true deadline for all these things is our death - we just aren't acknowledging this. His cure for procrastination? Awareness of our mortality. Sound familiar?

When we think about plans we need to separate the effort to work on our plans an the outcome of that effort. The effort is within our control, we can choose how much or how little we put in to the endeavor. The outcome, however, is not within our control, and we need to learn how to let go of attachment to outcome.

For example, as I travel today I can put in the effort to do my part - to be at the airport at the right time, with the right documents and with a positive attitude. The actual outcome - whether the flights run on time or if the journey is chaotic - these things are outside my control. I need to put in the effort, but not be attached to the outcome. That is the key to sane travel.

So, as the great poet Burns wrote:

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,

You knew that, didn't you?

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on why there aren't 'Merit Badges' to achieve in Metta Meditation. Feel free to use it in any way that helps you in your practice.




Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash