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, May 22, 2022

Weeds

Weeds

The weather where we are has been a bit strange this spring. We had snow at the beginning of April (the latest we have had snow for 82 years apparently), and both April and May have been wetter than usual - even for a persistently damp place like the Pacific Northwest. Now I can't complain, especially as other, not too distant areas are experiencing droughts. Being in the soggy part of the country has its advantages.

And one of those advantages is of course how beautiful it is. The wet weather, combined with a few warm days and generally mild weather otherwise has meant that this whole area is wonderfully green at the moment.

And that goes for my front yard. At the moment it is full of glorious, luxurious thick plants, bursting with color and many shades of green.

I think it looks lovely.

But, of course, the minor downside to this is that ninety percent of the wonderful flora in my yard are weeds.

Now I needed to be told this. I must confess that if you asked me I wouldn't be able to tell you which plants were the weeds, and which were the 'good plants.' I'll be honest with you, they all look great to me.

This division of plants into 'weeds' and 'not-weeds' has always puzzled me. I have asked many people what the true definition of a weed is, but nobody seems to be able to give me a satisfactory answer. The most compelling answer I have heard is that "weeds are plants that are easy to grow." Which, now that I write it down, doesn't feel that satisfactory after all.

I find this arbitrary distinction between weeds and 'good plants' a strong metaphor for how we divide the world into people we like and those we don't. When we practice metta meditation one of the things we learn is that this distinction is every bit as arbitrary. Seven years ago I wrote a short essay on this dilemma. You can find the original here, or I have reproduced it below.

I hope that you find it useful, and that you can enjoy the weeds in your yard - and the metaphoric weeds in your life - over the coming week.

Metta, Chris.


Lovingkindness, Weeds and Judgment

June 14th, 2015


I've always been perplexed by the concept of 'weeds'. The fact that we arbitrarily divide flora into 'good' flowers and 'bad' weeds has always struck me as capricious.

Of course, when we consider Metta or Lovingkindness practice we come up against exactly the same realization - that our division of the world into 'friends' and 'enemies' is equally subjective and unhelpful.

When contemplating this it reminded me of a song I heard in my youth by the Christian singer-songwriter Graham Kendrick. He wrote:

Teach me to love the unlovely O Lord
I don’t know how to do it
Teach me to love the impossible people
I really don’t like
I don’t naturally take to some folks
I can’t make out the way that they are
I just don’t understand other people who aren’t like me at all

Just how radical this acceptance of all beings - including ourselves - is can be seen from the following passage by Ñanamoli Thera in his introduction to "The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta): As Taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon":

Loving-kindness ought to be brought to the point where there are no longer any barriers set between persons, and for this the following example is given: Suppose a man is with a dear, a neutral and a hostile person, himself being the fourth; then bandits come to him and say "we need one of you for human sacrifice." Now if that man thinks "Let then take this one, or that one," he has not yet broken down the barriers, and also if he thinks "Let them take me but not these three," he has not broken down the barriers either. Why not? Because he seeks the harm of him who he wishes to be taken and the welfare of only the other three. It is only when he does not see a single one among the four to be chosen in preference to the other three, and directs his mind quite impartially towards himself and the other three, that he has broken down the barriers

You can read the whole teaching here.

The full audio, including a fully guided Metta meditation is below.


"The Practice of Loving-Kindness (Metta): As Taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon",
compiled and translated by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nanamoli/wheel007.html .

Photo by Jon Phillips on Unsplash


Sunday, May 15, 2022

Deteriorata

Deteriorata

Be comforted, that in the face of all irridity and disillusionment,
And despite the changing fortunes of time,
There is always a big future in computer maintenance.

- National Lampoon's Deteriorata, lyrics by Tony Hendra.

There are certain things that really manage to wind me up. Small things that are on the surface annoying, but which somehow seem to automatically send me into full melt-down. You probably have your own triggers, but for me it is badly-written software. You know, the app on your phone that just refuses to allow you to enter what you need to, or the website that sends you into a loop when you try and pay a bill. I work every day with computers and have written a lot of software myself, so I find it doubly frustrating when I feel - rightly or wrongly - that the developers of the program have just done a really sloppy job.

So I felt a lot of empathy recently when I read a piece by meditation teacher Padraig O'Morain where he tells a story about getting his computer repaired. He had taken it to a repair shop once, and in the process of 'repairing' it they introduced a new problem. So he was on the way to take it back to the shop, and was stressing about what their response would be to his new complaint.

It is an interesting thing that very often the things we get angry about haven't actually happened - but instead we project in our head what others might do, and we get angry about that. This is where Padraig O'Morain was, and to cap it all he was stuck in traffic.

It is at this point that he had his insight: He simply said to himself:

My happiness does not depend on this.
This simple realization can be a powerful mantra. As he observes in the article:

I have tended to live my life making the assumption that each thing I do is essential to my happiness and that it will be very bad indeed if I don’t succeed in doing it. I don’t know where this assumption came from and most of the time it has operated outside my conscious awareness. But bringing it into awareness has helped me to realise, in practice, the sheer silliness of this way of looking at things.

I really like this way of re-framing what is going on. By asserting that his happiness was not dependent on the reactions of the repair shop employees he removed the clinging that he was feeling for the outcome. And it is that clinging that causes the stress, the dukkha that causes us to suffer with our anger.

I know this is a lesson I need to take to heart more - especially when it comes to badly written software applications! “My happiness does not depend on this” is a mantra I will be using this week, maybe it will be useful for you, too.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided 30 minute meditation on working with anger. Please feel free to use it in whatever way helps your practice.



Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash




Sunday, May 8, 2022

Stand There

Stand There

Recently I watched a short video essay called "My Religion and My Banned Books" by John Green, one of the 'VlogBrothers.' John Green is probably best known as the author of the highly influential YA novel "The Fault in Our Stars." The book follows the story of a 16 year-old girl dying of thyroid cancer and her romance with a fellow patient. I have not read the book (nor seen the movie that was made of it), but I know that it was a cultural phenomenon among teenagers a few years back and has a strong following amongst that target age-group, especially those who have themselves experienced this kind of loss or suffering.

In the video essay Green talks about his time as a Student Chaplain in a Children's' Hospital. It was this period of time that would eventually become the inspiration for the book. He talks about some of the unspeakable things he witnessed there (he calls them 'obscene') and the challenge of being a Chaplain in that situation. He observes:

[...] if somebody drowning in an ocean of grief, said to me that their loved one had no afterlife, it was not my job to question that; and if somebody told me that their loved one was now in heaven, it was not  my job to question that either. My job was to listen–to really listen. I wasn’t there to solve or fix their pain, which could not be fixed; I was there to hear their pain and acknowledge it.
As my supervisor often told me: Don’t just do something. Stand there.

The advice he was given really resonated with me. When we come across people suffering, or witness situations where everything is falling apart, our instinct is often to try and 'fix' things, or to offer our own opinion on what is happening and what should be done. What Green is saying here is that the wise thing, the courageous thing, the compassionate thing, is just to 'stand there' and be present with the person and their grief.

A while ago I wrote a letter about 'Skillful Words,' where we looked at the Buddha's advice on when to speak and when to stay silent. In it I refer to the Abhaya Sutta where the Buddha gives very clear instructions about when to speak and when to remain silent. Simply put, we are told to consider three things; Firstly whether what we are about to say is true - and if it is not, it should never be said. Secondly, is what we are about to say beneficial to the person hearing it? If it is not, then even if it is true we should refrain from saying it. And finally will it be pleasing for the other person to hear? If it is true and beneficial but not pleasing to hear, then we are encouraged to carefully weigh the timing of when it is said.

You can see from this that the situations that Green found himself in as a Chaplain the skillful thing to do would be to remain silent much of the time. And being silent meant that he was present and available for the children, their families and the loved ones in their time of grief.

For me, as a type-A problem solver, this is an important lesson to learn. My own natural strategy is to try and fix things when they go wrong, or to offer an opinion when I think I 'know' what is right. But I think I need to take this lesson to heart a bit more: Don’t just do something. Stand there.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. On hearing the advice "Don’t just do something. Stand there" I assumed that it probably wasn't original with Green's supervisor, even though I had not heard it before. And of course that is the case, with Quote Investigator observing that it is the type of reversal of a common cliche that probably was coined by many people independently. The earliest version they found was from someone quoting Martin Gabel in 1945.

P.P.S. I have linked below a fully guided  meditation on Skillful Words. Please feel free to use it in your own practice in whatever way you find helpful.















Sunday, May 1, 2022

Severance

Severance

I recently watched, and enjoyed, the Apple TV show 'Severance.' Now I know that psychological Sci-Fi thrillers may not be your cup of tea, but like all the best examples of the genre it chooses to ask some very interesting questions, in this case on the nature of 'self.'

Without giving away any spoilers (just in case it is your cup of tea) the premise of the show is that scientists have developed a brain implant that can switch on - or off - memories. By doing so people can partition their lives into two, where the memories from one 'life' are completely separated from the other. In the show, individuals choose to be 'severed' so that when they are at work they have a completely different set of memories to when they are outside. Thus the person while at work has no memories - or knowledge - of their outside life and, conversely, while going about their daily life they have no memories of what they did or experienced at work. The show thus asks questions about whether the two 'versions' of the individual are the same or different people, and also raises ethical questions of whether one 'version' can be abusing the other - even if they are physically the same person and entered into the situation voluntarily.

I won't go into more details about what transpires, but I think anyone who has read any Buddhist thinking will be immediately recognizing some of the core of what is being explored - specifically the relationship between our experience of memory, and our sense of 'self.'

Memory is a very powerful part of how we tend to see ourselves, and we intuitively feel that it is part of what makes up our 'self.' And yet memory is extremely complex and nuanced, with the ways our brains process and recall things being far from reliable. We all have to come to terms with the fact that our memories are fickle, and can be lost, distorted or fabricated. Memories fade, we misremember, we can even be lead to believe we experienced things that we did not. So while our memories my seem very dear to us, we cannot say that they define us. In fact, if we go through all the things that we might think do define us - such as our memories, our bodies, our minds, our plans, our hopes, our personalities, our values - we will find that not a single one, no matter how dear or how tied up to our sense of self, actually is our self.

This idea - that no matter how deeply we contemplate each of these things we will not identify them as self - is called 'anattā', usually translated as 'not-self.' We are taught (in e.g. The Ananda Sutta) that 'all phenomena are not-self.'

Now, there is a very common misconception here that what this is saying is that there is no self. This however is a misconception - if you read the short Ananda Sutta linked above you will see that the Buddha explicitly refused to say that there was no self. Instead, he emphasized the true insight, that all phenomena are not-self.

What does this mean? For us, it means that the things that we might cling to as being our 'self' - our bodies, memories, personalities - are not intrinsically 'self.' By beginning to weed out our attachment to these things we can start to experience liberation. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu says in his essay No-self or Not-self?:

...the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there's the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what's experiencing it, or whether or not it's a self?

So while these questions might make great fodder for Sci-Fi thrillers, for us we can use them as stepping-stones, identifying on each step one less thing we need to cling on to.

Metta, Chris.

I have linked below a fully guided meditation on 'Self and Others.' When we do metta (loving-kindness) meditation one of the things we realize is that our natural separation of 'self' and 'other' is arbitrary - that drawing a line around 'me' is misleading and does not define 'self.' Please feel free to use this fully guided audio meditation in whatever way you feel helps you in your practice.



"No-self or Not-self?", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 24 November 2013,
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/notself2.html