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.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Leaving the Boat


 Leaving the Boat

 I had a fun dream last night. In it, I was standing in a street with a long row of small brick town-houses (what in England we would call a 'terrace'). In the dream, each house represented a lesson or something I was learning. One house had lots of signs with French words on them - a clear reference to the fact that I am currently trying to learn a little Spanish, and my schoolboy French keeps getting in the way! The street of houses wound off into the distance, and it appeared that new houses were being added on at the end.

There's no mystery in this dream. I am currently having to study a lot of very complex mathematical concepts for my work, and I think this was my poor brain's way of saying that it was full!

But it got me thinking about study and learning generally. When we embark on a meditation path or spiritual journey there is often so much to learn. At first this can be exciting and energizing. After that initial honeymoon period though I often see things going to one of two extremes. One is to become disillusioned and to eventually quit. The other is to become so obsessed with the hunt that it takes over - driving the belief that the next teacher-du-jour, the next self-help book, the next video will be 'the one' that opens everything up. I myself have experienced oscillating between these two extremes, and it can be exhausting.

Like all things, there is a balance, a middle ground to be taken in our studies and our practice.

There is a sutta that can help us with this balance, the wonderfully-named "Water Snake Simile Sutta" (Alagaddūpama Sutta). It has as its antagonist the even-more-wonderfully-named "Ariṭṭha Formerly-of-the-Vulture-Killers" (who sounds like someone straight out of the MCU).

In the sutta Ariṭṭha Formerly-of-the-Vulture-Killers is trying to argue a point of the dharma, wrongly contradicting the Buddha through his misunderstanding. After correcting Ariṭṭha Formerly-of-the-Vulture-Killers, the Buddha takes a step back and offers two parables about how we should approach studying as we proceed on our path.

The better-known of the two parables is the parable of the raft (or boat). In the sutta we are told:

“Suppose a man were traveling along a path. He would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, ‘Here is this great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, & leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, were to cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands & feet?’ Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, & leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands & feet. Having crossed over to the further shore, he might think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having hoisted it on my head or carrying it on my back, go wherever I like?’ What do you think, monks? Would the man, in doing that, be doing what should be done with the raft?“

“And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?’ In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto. Understanding the Dhamma as taught compared to a raft, you should let go even of Dhammas, to say nothing of non-Dhammas.”

This a a lovely analogy and very powerful. We put a lot of work into building our 'rafts,' but if we become attached to them then they can weigh us down. Walking over dry land carrying the raft is foolish. But - and this is the point a lot of people miss - we need the raft to cross the water.

Many people interpret this to mean that they can abandon learning, abandon practice and that will be fine - but they often do so while they are still in the middle of the lake!

I think the raft simile is popular because it can be misinterpreted as license to let go of our practice, but it is important to remember that it was taught in the context of another simile - the titular 'Water Snake:'

“Suppose there were a man needing a water-snake, seeking a water-snake, wandering in search of a water-snake. He would see a large water-snake and grasp it by the coils or by the tail. The water-snake, turning around, would bite him on the hand, on the arm, or on one of his limbs, and from that cause he would suffer death or death-like suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong-graspedness of the water-snake [...]

“Suppose there were a man needing a water-snake, seeking a water-snake, wandering in search of a water-snake. He would see a large water-snake and pin it down firmly with a cleft stick. Having pinned it down firmly with a forked stick, he would grasp it firmly by the neck. Then no matter how much the water-snake might wrap its coils around his hand, his arm, or any of his limbs, he would not from that cause suffer death or death-like suffering. Why is that? Because of the right-graspedness of the water-snake. In the same way, there is the case where some clansmen study the Dhamma.… Having studied the Dhamma, they ascertain the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment. Having ascertained the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment, they come to an agreement through pondering. They don’t study the Dhamma either for attacking others or for defending themselves in debate. They reach the goal for which people study the Dhamma. Their right grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term welfare & happiness. Why is that? Because of the right-graspedness of the Dhammas."
This gives us the balance to the raft simile. We need to become skillful in our practice and our learning - to have a 'right-graspedness.'

The bottom line for all this is that while we are on the lake we need the right raft. We need to work on that raft in a way that will transport us safely across the lake. We can, however, do that without becoming attached to it, and recognizing that the raft is just our vehicle, not a prized possession.

 Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully-guided meditation on the parable of the raft. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm on Sunday February 28th - you are welcome to join with us if you wish.

 Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. “Alagaddūpama Sutta” dhammatalks.org. Retrieved from https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN22.html. Accessed 27 Feb 2021.


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.