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.