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, August 28, 2021

The Empty Boat


The Empty Boat

Last week I wrote about how we can have a gentle awareness of our breath - or whatever object we are using in our meditation. This 'gentle awareness' contrasts with the tendency we sometimes have to grasp at our breath - to concentrate as hard as we possibly can. As I was doing some background reading for that I came across this quote from Lama Yeshe which I found particularly appropriate:

Many meditators emphasize too much on concentration: if you are squeezing, then there is no control of anger if someone disturbs you. The beauty of real meditation is, that even if you are disturbed, you can allow space and time for this.
What struck me about this was not only that he warned against the kind of grasping concentration we are discussing - or 'squeezing' as he calls it - but that he outlines a specific danger of this - that we open ourselves up to anger.

This may seem a little strange at first, but it is worth contrasting the control we have when practicing gentle awareness versus the lack of control we have when we grasp or 'squeeze' at the object. When we concentrate as hard as we possibly can our minds are unbalanced. The slightest thing can send us off, and we open ourselves up to negative emotions such as anger. When we have gentle awareness and our minds are balanced we can meet disturbances and interruptions with equanimity.

As I was reading further around this I was reminded of the story of The Empty Boat that Thích Nhất Hạnh tells:

A monk decides to meditate alone. Away from his monastery, he takes a boat and goes to the middle of the lake, closes his eyes and begins to meditate.

After a few hours of unperturbed silence, he suddenly feels the blow of another boat hitting his. With his eyes still closed, he feels his anger rising and, when he opens his eyes, he is ready to shout at the boatman who dared to disturb his meditation. But when he opened his eyes, saw that it was an empty boat, not tied up, floating in the middle of the lake...

At that moment, the monk achieves self-realization and understands that anger is within him; it simply needs to hit an external object to provoke it.

After that, whenever he meets someone who irritates or provokes his anger, he remembers; the other person is just an empty boat.

Anger is inside me.
This story, which I believe is a re-telling of a story from the Zhuangzi, is really interesting. When we realize that our reactions - whether we allow anger to arise or not - depends on an unknown, then we learn something about that anger. We say 'that person made me angry' - but what if there is no person? Think of it as Schrödinger's Boat - If there's a cat in it we get angry with the cat, otherwise we don't get angry. Contemplating this allows us to strip away the delusion that anger is external to us, that it is something others enforce on us, and instead allows us to own our anger. Once we own it, we can choose to move beyond it.

In his essay "Happiness and Peace are Possible," Thích Nhất Hạnh gives us the following advice for how to approach our meditation:

You don’t have to struggle with your breath. You don’t have to struggle with your body, or with your hate, or with your anger. Treat your in-breath and out-breath tenderly, nonviolently, as you would treat a flower. Later you will be able to do the same thing with your physical body, treating it with gentleness, respect, nonviolence, and tenderness.

Like Lama Yeshe he is showing how this gentle approach to our meditation carries over to our day-to-day lives, and allows us to approach this world with equanimity and kindness.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the story of The Empty Boat. Feel free to use it if you wish in your own practice.


Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash




Saturday, August 21, 2021

Gentle Awareness

Gentle Awareness

When I was a kid I tried meditating. I didn't really know what meditation was, but I knew it somehow involved concentrating as hard as I could on something. For me the 'something' was a candle. After a few goes I gave up - nothing really happened, the candle was the same and I just felt frustrated. My first meditation experience probably lasted all of three minutes, and it would be a few decades before I tried again.

I laugh at this nowadays, but at the time my attempt was sincere. What I hadn't realized - and nobody told me - was that meditation didn't in fact start with straining to concentrate on something. Instead our meditations start with a simple, gentle, awareness.

The Pali term for simple breath meditation is anapanasati - literally the 'recollection of breathing in and out.' 'Recollection' is an interesting term here and can seem strange at first but it is a great place to start. Instead of concentrating as hard as we possible can on the breath we instead just recall that we are breathing. When we recall something we bring to our mind something that we know, but had not been conscious of. It's not that you didn't know you were breathing, it's that you did not have that fact in your consciousness.

The great thing about meditation is that it is empirical, that we can experiment with it and see for ourselves the effects of changes in approach. And part of that is experimenting with the lightness of touch of our awareness. As we progress in our experience we can make that awareness ever more gentle, lighter and more subtle.

Even though awareness of breath is for most of us the first form of practice we learn it is important not to see it as a 'basic' or 'junior' meditation. It is often used as the foundation of other forms, but we shouldn't skip past it and rush to those other forms. The calmness, centering and presence we can cultivate from a gentle awareness is not something to be rushed past but something to be experienced.

Sometimes it's good to go back to the basics, and a gentle awareness of the breath is a beautiful place to return to.

Metta, Chris.


I have linked below a fully guided meditation on cultivating a gentle awareness of the breath. You are welcome to use it in whatever way helps you in your practice.



Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash





Saturday, August 14, 2021

In Silence


In Silence

I first learned to meditate many years ago at a small center in Bristol, England. The room where we were taught was a small one on the second floor above a store on a busy road from the City Center. It was on a main bus route and people would mill around outside waiting. The buses that stopped there were double-deckers and from the windows we could see the people in the upper decks. In the summer the center's windows would be open as there was no air-conditioning, and the noise from outside would be loud and often raucous.

One could say that it wasn't an ideal place to learn to meditate - but I would disagree. In many ways it was perfect. You couldn't get angry with the sources of the noise, they had as much or more right to be there than we did. It was an urban meditation center and we quickly got to realize what that meant. We learned to accept the noise, and the people shouting and the deep growling sounds of the diesel engines (and the fumes) simply became part of our meditation.

I have been thinking a lot about silence lately. We like to think that when we meditate we go into a quiet room and shut out all the noise - but of course we can't always do that, and even when we can we quickly find we are simply replacing one kind of sound with another.

In 1952 composer John Cage wrote his most famous work, a piece called 4'33". The score is in three movements, with the instructions for each movement being simply "Tacet" - don't play your instrument. So for the duration of the piece (which happened to be 4'33" for the first performance) the performer, or performers, play nothing on their instrument.

Now many people interpret this as 4'33" of silence, and consider Cage a fraud and/or the piece a joke, but of course this is not the case. Simply because the instruments aren't being played doesn't mean that there is silence. Instead the sounds that come to the fore are the ambient, environmental sounds. And because of that the piece sounds different when played on a piano, or by an orchestra, or by a death-metal band.

One way to look at what Cage is saying is that when we strip away the intentional sounds of the instruments, there is still sound. It will come as no surprise to you that Cage's inspiration for the piece came from his own practice of Zen Buddhism.

When we sit on the cushion we usually chose to be away from intentional sounds, from people talking and from music. But sounds are still there - whether they are the normal ambient sounds or the buses on the street. And part of our practice is to be able to have awareness of these sounds but to not cling to them. To be aware of the sensation of hearing the bus but not to get caught up in our mental formations of buses.

We can also go deeper. When we strip away (or avoid) the intentional sounds we are left with the ambient. What is left when we strip away the ambient? What is left is the sound of our own bodies, our own ears, of our internal psycho-acoustic mechanisms.

There is a meditation form, known as nada-yoga (practice on the inner sound) that works with these sounds. There is a wonderful overview of this form by Ajahn Amaro called "The Sound of Silence," which I highly recommend reading. In it Ajahn says:

To detect the nada sound, turn your attention toward your hearing. If you listen carefully to the sounds around you, you’re likely to hear a continuous, high-pitched inner sound like white noise in the background. It is a sound that is beginningless and endless.

There’s no need to theorize about this inner vibration in an effort to figure out exactly what it might be. Just turn your attention to it. If you’re able to hear this inner sound, you can use the simple act of listening to it as another form of meditation practice, in the same way one uses the breath as an object of awareness. Just bring your attention to the inner sound and allow it to fill the whole sphere of your awareness.
He does give some words of caution that are worth repeating for those of you who may suffer from tinnitus or similar:

In a small number of people, the inner sound is oppressively loud, usually for an organic reason. In these cases, inner listening is unlikely to be helpful as a meditation practice, since the subjec­tive intensity of the sound makes it less useful as an object to encourage peace and clarity.
So, if this practice bothers or upsets you then it is best to avoid this as a practice. However if that is not the case for you then it can be eye-opening (or ear-opening?) to meditate on these sounds. It allows us to center on a phenomenon - like the breath - that is always with us but seldom brought into our awareness.

Whatever level you wish to meditate on we can raise our awareness of all the sounds we experience - the intentional sounds, ambient sounds, and the subtle nada of our own bodies and minds.

As I delved into the subject of silence over the last weeks I learned and became aware of many things that had been below my awareness - more than I can put in this short newsletter but things I will maybe write more about in future. In the meantime I'd love to encourage you to experiment with more subtle awareness of sounds in your own practice.

Metta, Chris.


PS. Sadly John Cage is mostly remembered nowadays for the controversial and misunderstood 4'33". I don't want you to think that was all there was to him - he wrote a lot of wonderful music, some challenging, some beautiful, some both. Here is one of my favorites.

PPS. If you would like to follow a fully guided nada-yoga meditation please use the link below.




Saturday, August 7, 2021

For Our Mentors

 For Our Mentors

The last few weeks have been a difficult time for our family. Last Sunday my Father-in-Law passed away after a few months of illness. Obviously there has been much sadness, but as always there is the accompanying joy and gratitude of having had the opportunity to know this wonderful man.

For me I have great memories of the times we spent together - the most memorable of all being the times that the two of us would stay up late after others had gone to bed, drinking excellent Scotch and generally setting the world to rights. The subjects would always be a combination of spirituality, religion and politics - often to a soundtrack of Jazz, C20th classical, electronic and generally weird music. I loved those times, and looking back on them now I realize how formative they were to me over the years as I developed my own ideas and viewpoints.

You can probably relate and bring to mind the people in your own life who have had similar effects on you. Not exactly teachers, but people who have been influential by who they are, what they said and how they caused you to question and think. We often use the word 'mentor' or 'influence' for these people. As we discussed last week, having gratitude for those who have had a positive influence on our life is an important part of our path. Without gratitude we play into the delusion of our separate self. With gratitude we realize the myriad events and influences that make up our present being.

When we practice Metta Bhavana - cultivation of lovingkindness and goodwill - we often use four specific people to practice with: Our self; A friend; A neutral person, and An enemy. In the older forms of the practice (which goes back to around the 5th Century c.e.) there is an extra person to include - the 'benefactor.' This is a person who has, one way or another, helped you on your path. For a monk it was explicitly the person who had provided financial support to allow them to practice. For us the benefactor can be thought of more broadly as our mentors - those who have supported us on our path. Again, this is more than just your teachers and can include all those who provided insight or support that contributed to your own evolution. It can be the person whose kind words kept you on the path. It could be the person who welcomed you to your Sangha. It can be the person whose dedication to practice was an inspiration. It can even include those secular authors who have made you think and question things that should be questioned (GNU Terry Pratchett).

So I would like to encourage you this week to think about your own mentors and benefactors, and express gratitude for them. If they are still with us maybe express that gratitude to them. If they are no longer with us then hold that joy and gratitude in your heart. That is what I will be doing this week.

Metta, Chris

 I have linked below a fully guided Metta Bhavana meditation where we focus on generating metta for our Mentors. Feel free to use it if you wish in any way that helps.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash