Saturday, February 20, 2021

Watching the Monkeys


 Watching the Monkeys

One of the first things we all experience when starting out on a meditation journey is what the Buddha termed 'Kapicitta' - literally 'monkey-mind.'

It's a wonderful and evocative term, and all of us who have experienced it know exactly what it means. And I would love to say that in my years of meditation I have moved beyond monkey-mind - but of course I haven't. There are still times when I sit and my mind races.

Having monkey-mind can be discouraging, but in reality the mere recognition of the fact that we are experiencing Kapicitta is the practice. The monkeys were always there - it is just that now we can see them. Even that is progress.

I like to approach the monkeys in the way I would real monkeys - with fascination and curiosity. If you showed me a room full of monkeys I could spend hours watching them, learning about their nature and watching as they play, fight and squabble.

The thing with monkey-mind is not to try and banish them, but to observe them, understand them and learn about why they are there. When we begin meditating one of our first insights is that we can watch the monkeys rather than being defined by them.

And watching monkeys can be fun - both out in the physical world and in our minds.

Sometimes we feel that the arrival of the monkeys is a kind of failure, that we haven't achieved the level of mind-control that we would like to think we have. But I like to see it instead as an opportunity to be playful, to have a little bit of fun. There are times when thirty minutes of watching the monkeys play can be the most valuable thing we can do.

So I would like to wish you all monkey-free meditations in the coming week. But if they do arrive, you know what to do!

Have fun, Chris.

 I have linked below a fully guided meditation on watching the monkeys play. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 21st February - you are welcome to join with us if you wish.


 

 

Photo by Andre Mouton on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Valentine's Day Metta

 

Valentine's Day Metta


This weekend is St. Valentine's Day, a rather awkward holiday celebrating Romantic Love, and of course like all good holidays now used as an excuse for companies to sell stuff. Your inbox is probably full of reasons why Valentine's day is the perfect time to buy X or subscribe to Y. And this year is no different even given the strange state of the world. A fun game to play right now is to count how many articles include the phrase "Love in the Time of COVID" somewhere in them (a quick internet search shows 911,000 articles including that exact phrase! And I guess I have just added one more).

Our core meditation practice, Metta Bhavana, is usually translated as "Cultivation of Lovingkindness," and in it we practice generating Metta - an unconditional form of love - for all beings. So it seems appropriate at this time of the year to step back and contemplate what we mean by 'love,' and how it fits into our practice.

In English we overload the word 'love' with a huge number of meanings. Things I love include my wife, my cat, Indian food, Twin Peaks, coffee, Radiohead, Terry Pratchett - you get the picture. So many different concepts rolled into one word.

On Valentine's Day the specific form of love being celebrated is Romantic Love, the form that is embedded so deeply in our culture. Where would music, novels, movies and other art-forms be without it? What would Ewan and Nicole sing about on that elephant? And of course this form of love is essential - we wouldn't survive as a species without it.

In Pali the word pema is used for affectionate love and is often described as the 'near-enemy' of metta. 'Near-enemy' here means the thing that can look like metta, but which is really the opposite. This kind of affectionate love has at its core a desired outcome or state for the person who is loving the other - in other words it is not a pure wish for the well-being of the person being loved.

And this is how we can distinguish between the different forms of love. When we have metta for another we are wishing for their well-being, without us gaining anything else from that. The great teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests that rather than always using lovingkindness as the translation of metta we should instead use goodwill. I think that these are wise words, as it avoids the attachment and ambiguity that can be tied up with our western concepts of love.

So should we avoid romantic love? Of course not, we just need to understand that it is completely different from - and often the opposite of - true unconditional love.

And of course it keeps the arts - and the species - going!

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided Metta meditation for Valentine's Day. A few of us will be pressing 'play' at 7pm PT on February 14th - you are welcome to join us or of course listen at any time.







Saturday, February 6, 2021

Not Different

 

Not Different

I have a confession to make. I confess that despite having lived in the US for over twenty years, and despite the well-intentioned coaching of many of my friends, I still don't understand the sport that is called 'football' over here. Believe me, I have tried, but at some point I always end up throwing up my hands and exclaiming "so why have they stopped?"

Now I know that to a few of you that will sound heretical, but it is what it is. I do enjoy sports - especially those that use round balls. I enjoy watching the skill and teamwork even when my team gets destroyed 9-0 (as happened earlier this week).

This weekend it's the Superbowl, and while it is likely to be very different this year there are still going to be many people glued to the 43 hours of play, on-field management meetings and adverts that it seems to entail. And of course that's the fun - the excuse to eat chips, cheer for your team and boo the others.

All of this is fun, and is a way for us to take the underlying tribalism that evolution has wrought in us and channel it into a healthy display of appreciation for athleticism, teamwork and dedication. Even when the ball is the wrong shape.

We all know that  the people who support the 'other' team are just the same as us, that the only reason they support the other team is because of the city or the part of town they were born in, or where they went to college. And that if your life had started differently, if you had moved to a different place for work, you could be a fan of the hated team. We know this, and it is part of the fun.

And sometimes it goes sour. There are many instances of when people lose this perspective of commonality and choose to generate true hatred for the opposition. We all know it is crazy and deluded but it happens all the time, where people hate the supporters of the other team so much that it turns to violence.

While these are the extremes it is worth contemplating how we divide the world in arbitrary groups of people, whether it be the teams they support, their social background, the city they come from, their politics, their nationality - even the music they love. All too often we divide the world in these ways, and when we do so we make exactly the same mistake as the sports hooligan - dividing the world into us and them, ignoring the fact that we have more in common than we have differences.

In the traditional practice of Metta meditation we contemplate four primary individuals - our self, a friend, a 'neutral' (little-known) person and an enemy. In doing so we consider two dimensions of how we split the world up - those we know well versus those we know little, and those we like versus those we dislike.

By using the meditation practice to examine our feeling for these people, and practicing feeling love for all of them, we start to understand that these dimensions, these ways of dividing the world, are arbitrary and fluid. Enemies become friends, the unknown can become known. The genius of the form is that we start with four 'buckets' to put people in, but as we continue to do the practice we realize that the buckets themselves are unreal, that they are just a construction. This is the insight we can get from the practice. And it's not easy, we are wired to focus on differences, to hold our own perspective higher than that of others.

But that, of course, is why we do the practice.


Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided Metta meditation contemplating how we are 'not different,' A few of us have committed to press 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 7th of February - you are welcome to join us if you like, or of course you can listen at any time.




Saturday, January 30, 2021

Sandcastles

 

Sandcastles

In his book "Teachings of the Buddha" Jack Kornfield recounts the following parable:

Some children were playing beside a river.  They made castles of sand, and each child defended his castle and said, "This one is mine."  They kept their castles separate and would not allow any mistakes about which was whose.  When the castles were all finished, one child kicked over someone else's castle and completely destroyed it.  The owner of the castle flew into a rage, pulled the other child's hair, struck him with his fist and bawled out, "He has spoiled my castle!  Come along all of you and help me to punish him as he deserves."  The others all came to his help.  They beat the child with a stick and then stamped on him as he lay on the ground.... Then they went on playing in their sand castles, each saying, "This is mine; no one else may have it.  Keep away! Don't touch my castle!" But evening came; it was getting dark and they all thought they ought to be going home.  No one now cared what became of his castle.  One child stamped on his, another pushed his over with both hands.  Then they turned away and went back, each to his home. 

 There are a few things going on in this story, and as a commentary on attachment, rage and impermanence it feels very relevant to what we see happening in the world right now. I do find some comfort in the fact that passages like this, from centuries ago, speak to the same experiences we are having now. Things may sometimes seem like they are unprecedented but any historian will tell you that as humans and as societies we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. We continue to cling to the impermanent and cause anger and suffering when we do so.

The parable is credited as a translation by Arthur Waley from the Yogacara Bhumi Sutra, though I've not been able to verify the source myself (if there are any source-sleuths out there, do let me know!).

There is a similar image used in the Satta Sutta, which I suspect is the root of the story above. In this sutta the Buddha is asked the rather existential question "To what extent is one said to be 'a being'?" As part of his answer, the Buddha offers the following:

Just as when boys or girls are playing with little sand castles (lit: dirt houses): as long as they are not free from passion, desire, love, thirst, fever, & craving for those little sand castles, that's how long they have fun with those sand castles, enjoy them, treasure them, feel possessive of them. But when they become free from passion, desire, love, thirst, fever, & craving for those little sand castles, then they smash them, scatter them, demolish them with their hands or feet and make them unfit for play.

Once we recognize this, that like the children we are attached to the impermanent, we are then exhorted in the sutta to "smash, scatter, & demolish" our craving for them.

It is easy when we read stories like the parable above to make them external - to imagine that it is about how others behave, the mistakes that others are making. It is easy to say 'look how governments, leaders and politicians are acting like the children with sandcastles!' However this is not the point. What we are being encouraged to do is to look at our own attachment to the impermanent, to look at how we are generating conflict and suffering through them.

Sandcastles are fun, but being attached to them is foolish. That much is obvious, but our meditation should be on what are the less-obvious, equally impermanent things that we are attached to?

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on the story of the sandcastles. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday 31st of January - you are welcome to join us if you wish, or listen at any time.

 

 

 

Photo by Phil Hearing on Unsplash

Teachings of the Buddha by Jack Kornfield, quoting the Yogacara Bhumi Sutra, translated by Arthur Waley - https://jackkornfield.com/teachings-of-the-buddha/

Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. "A Being: Satta Sutta (SN 23:2)," - https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/SN/SN23_2.html

 

 

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Brave Enough to See It

 Brave Enough to See It

This week we have experienced another week of highs and lows, but for me - and for many others - the high point of the week was a poem. Just saying that makes me smile, that amid the strange mix of celebration, noise, anger and confusion that we have seen this week a young woman's poem can be the thing that stands out the most. As Dostoevsky said, "Beauty will save the world," and I think this was an example of that.

If you didn't see it (or if, like me, you want hear it again) you can hear the whole poem here.

Amanda Gorman's poem started with this line:

When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
I feel that in this she perfectly captured the feeling of the moment. She then explores the question and our situation (including some nods to 'Hamilton') and finally comes to the conclusion:

When day comes we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
What I love about this is that it makes it clear that to move forward we - individually - have to open up to the fact that the light is always there. It is our own responsibility - nobody else's - to recognize this.

This is not about mere hope - for, as Pema Chodron says:

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can't simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what's going on, but that there's something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.
Or, as the great philosopher of our time, Dowager Countess Violet,  says: "Hope is a tease designed to prevent us from accepting reality."

In contrast, we are being exhorted to be brave enough see the light that is already here, that is already present even in these difficult moments. When we meditate we work on building the courage to see what is really going on, what the present truly holds. I hope that this week the words of a young woman can encourage us all in this practice.

Metta, Chris.

When looking through the past meditation recordings to find something suitable for this moment I came across one from 2015, just after the shocking Paris terrorist attacks. Listening through it again it is extremely relevant to our current times. I have linked to it below. It includes a fully-guided Metta (lovingkindness) meditation. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm on Sunday 24th January - you are welcome to join us if you wish, or of course listen at any time.

Pema Chodron quote from "When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times"

Amanda Gorman photo from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:210120-D-WD757-2466_(50861321057).jpg



 

 

 

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Finding a Place of Stillness

Finding a Place of Stillness

Sometimes being in this world feels like standing in a whirlwind. There is so much going on, so much noise, opinion, anger, blame, hurt - that we can feel overwhelmed. Sometimes - as we discussed last week - we feel that our only option is to get swept up in the storm and allow our own hurt and anger to grow.

It can often feel like these times that we are experiencing something new, some low point in history. In a way we are, in that the exact circumstance we find ourselves in is unique. But in another way, as historians remind us, times like these have always been part of our lot. The world has always been crazy, and there has never been a time without conflict.

Our challenge is how we choose to be  and act during stressful times. Do we get caught up in the whirlwind, or do we choose to find a place of stillness and clarity and allow our strength to grow from there?

It can be easy to forget the need to find that stillness, or worse to decide that finding stillness isn't relevant or appropriate for these times. But it isn't a luxury to be abandoned when things get difficult. Rather, the stillness is the source of our strength. Meditation and mind-training become more important in these times of conflict, not less.

So I would like to encourage us all this week to practice finding a place of stillness. Meditation and contemplation right now aren't luxuries, they are the most important things we can do. And that isn't to say that action isn't important as well - it is - but our action should come from the strength and insight that comes from the stillness they provide.

Whatever practice you have I would like to encourage you in it this week. If it is useful to you I have linked below a fully guided meditation on finding a place of stillness. A few of us have committed to pressing 'play' at 7pm PT on Sunday 17th January, but of course you can listen at any time.

Wishing you all well,

Chris.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Intoxication of Anger
(Meditation for Sunday January 10th)

The Intoxication of Anger

 
I think that all of us have been shaken this week by the scenes that we have seen on TV and in the media. Many of us have watched in disbelief, mixed with a strange feeling of inevitability. It's like we knew something like this was coming, but at the same time couldn't believe it when it actually did.

I am not going to dwell on the events of this week for this message, but rather encourage us all to turn our attention inwards on our own feelings and reactions. How did witnessing these events make us feel, and what did we do with those feelings?

When we witness people act in anger, we ourselves can also choose anger - either against or in sympathy with those we are watching. I say 'choose' very deliberately here. One of the insights we gain from meditation is that our emotions are choices. We often say "Fred made me angry," when really we should say "Fred did X, and I chose to become angry." Equanimity is the ability to be aware of this and to not choose anger. Of course, most of us haven't got to the place yet where we can be that clear-minded all the time. I am sure that for many of you your reaction was similar to mine, and some anger arose.

The key then is recognizing that anger has arisen, and what we choose to do with it. In the Dhammapada we are told:

When anger arises,
whoever keeps firm control
as if with a racing chariot:
him
I call a master charioteer.
    Anyone else,
    a rein-holder —
    that's all.

For some reason the wording of this makes me smile, in that it feels like a bit of a put-down - are you a master charioteer or just a rein-holder? Ouch! But the point is well made - are we masters of our mind, and able to rein-in our anger with skill, or do we let the horses run out of control?

Make no mistake, anger is addictive. And this isn't just a concept in meditation, it is well known in psychology too. Jean Kim M.D. in Psychology Today says:

[...] anger can lead to similar “rushes” as thrill-seeking activities where danger triggers dopamine reward receptors in the brain, or like other forms of addiction such as gambling, extreme sports, or even drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines. Anger can become its own reward, but like other addictions, the final consequences are dangerous and real, and people follow impulses in the moment without regard to the big picture.
The images we saw this week were the extreme examples of people drunk on anger. But let's be careful here, and be sure that we don't just look outward at them. Did we choose to be angry in response, and how did we work with that anger? Did we choose be be master-charioteers and control it, or did we choose to feed our own anger in response?

As a Brit we often joke that there is no problem so big or scary that it can't be solved by a 'nice cup of tea' (famously in the movie 'Sean of the Dead' the very English response to a zombie invasion is to 'have a nice cup of tea and wait for this all to blow over'). And while that is obviously a self-deprecating joke there is truth in it. When anger arises, can you sit with a cup of tea and work with you feelings, or do you choose to doomscroll and feed the anger? Sadly I know I chose the latter a few times this week.

So as we head into another challenging week I'd like to encourage us all to work on our skills as charioteers. We may not be at a place where anger never arises, but we can work on keeping firm control. Maybe with a nice cup of tea.

Metta, Chris

I have linked below a fully guided half-hour meditation on working with anger. A few of us have committed to press 'play' on this together at 7pm PT on Sunday, January 10th. You are welcome to join us then, or of course listen at any time. 

 

 "Kodhavagga: Anger" (Dhp XVII), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.17.than.html .

 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Brahma-Viharas for the New Year
(Meditation for Sunday Jan 3rd)

Brahma-Viharas

for the New Year

 

Firstly, I want to wish you all to be well, happy, and free from suffering as we head into 2021.

However, I expect that your inbox has been quite full these last few days with emails wishing you a 'Happy New Year.' I hope that this one will at least be a little different.

As I look at my own email inbox it is full of emails trying to entice me with promises such as:

  • Things I can buy at amazing prices
  • Ways I can improve myself
  • How my donation will save the world

 Now not all of these are bad, but they all perpetuate a myth - that somehow there is something outside of me, something external, that I just need to read / buy / obtain this one thing, and all will be well.


As we enter a New Year it is traditional to take stock and reevaluate where we are with our lives. Many people choose to make resolutions for the New Year. Now I have mixed feelings about these - on the one hand it can be good to address some of the habits we have fallen into and even small changes to unhealthy habits can lead to a big change. However the danger is that we start to look at ourselves as projects - as things that need to be 'fixed.' When we look at ourselves this way we fall into the trap of believing that we are somehow broken, somehow inadequate. And it is this feeling that the advertisers prey on - wanting to emphasize what we lack, what we don't have - because, of course, they are the ones who are more than happy to sell it to us.

So what is a healthy way to head into the New Year? It is at this time of the year that I like to remind myself - and all of us - of the Brahma-Viharas, the divine abodes or immeasurables. We can focus on cultivating these without falling into the trap of focusing on what we don't have.

Now the Brahma-Viharas may or may not be a new concept to you, but the good news is that you already know them and have the capacity for them. There is nothing new you have to attain, nothing you need to acquire, we just need to recognize them and choose to cultivate them. They are:

  • Love or Loving-kindness (metta)
  • Compassion (karuna)
  • Sympathetic Joy (mudita)
  • Equanimity (upekkha)

Nyanaponika Thera teaches us this:

They are called abodes (vihara) because they should become the mind's constant dwelling-places where we feel "at home"; they should not remain merely places of rare and short visits, soon forgotten. In other words, our minds should become thoroughly saturated by them. They should become our inseparable companions, and we should be mindful of them in all our common activities. As the Metta Sutta, the Song of Loving-kindness, says:

When standing, walking, sitting, lying down,
Whenever he feels free of tiredness
Let him establish well this mindfulness —
This, it is said, is the Divine Abode.

These four — love, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity — are also known as the boundless states (appamañña), because, in their perfection and their true nature, they should not be narrowed by any limitation as to the range of beings towards whom they are extended. They should be non-exclusive and impartial, not bound by selective preferences or prejudices. A mind that has attained to that boundlessness of the Brahma-viharas will not harbor any national, racial, religious or class hatred.
As we head into 2021 I would like to encourage us all to contemplate and cultivate these four abodes, and while I am not a great fan of resolutions I can say that choosing to cultivate these in this time will bring benefit to us all. One great place to start is reading the full teaching by Nyanaponika Thera that I have quoted from above and linked here. Another is to practice their cultivation through meditation. If you already have a bhavana (cultivation) practice then I would encourage you in that. If you are new to this then I have linked below a fully guided half-hour meditation on cultivating the Brahma-Viharas in the New Year. A few of us have committed to press 'play' on this together at 7pm PT on Sunday, January 3rd. You are welcome to join us then, or of course listen at any time.

Whatever you choose I hope that we can all generate more love, joy, compassion and equanimity as we start this year.

May you all be well, happy and free from suffering,

Chris.



"The Four Sublime States: Contemplations on Love, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity", by Nyanaponika Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel006.html .