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, November 20, 2022



I am going to start today with an apology to all of you reading who are under forty or so. I am going to be referencing some music from the nineties, and it is likely that you will have no clue what I am talking about - so I will be sure to explain the relevance to our meditation practices. I've got you.

I am also going to apologize to those of you over forty too - the song I am going to reference is twenty seven years old. There is a significant possibility that the fact it was that long ago will feel like a bit of a shock to you. Think of it as a free extra lesson in mortality. You're welcome.

Anyway, yesterday I played an album I hadn't listened to in over twenty years - Canadian singer/songwriter Alanis Morisette's1995 work "Jagged Little Pill." Now, I love music from all genres and era's, and often listen to older works, but I hadn't listened to this one for a long time. On release it was a huge success and dominated alt-radio for the next couple of years. It was definitely an album of its time, something very much 'of' the period. So, while I used to play it a lot back then, it definitely fell out of rotation sometime around the turn of the Millennium.

So why was I digging back in the archives yesterday to resurface this bout of nostalgia? Well, more recently there has been a Tony-nominated Broadway musical based on the songs from the album. Last night I was fortunate enough to get to see it here in town, so before we went I was refreshing my memory of the music once again. The musical turned out to be a lot of fun, but that isn't what this letter is about - I want to talk about just one second in the opening song on the album.

The first track is titled "All I Really Want." It's quite a banger, with a driving drum riff and evocative lyrics - and is a great way to set the scene for the following songs. It was a big success as a single, and got a lot of radio play. But there is a small detail of the song that stood out to me the first time I heard it and still fascinates me to this day. At one point she sings:

Why are you so petrified of silence?
Here, can you handle this?

And everything stops. No instruments, no anything. Silence. Complete dead air.

I've measured it, it is only for a little more than a second, but it still comes as a shock and feels much longer. The contrast from the driving rhythm to nothing really gives you whiplash. Anyone who works in radio will tell you that dead air is a nightmare, so to release a (commercial) song with intentional dead air in it was quite brave.

But then the song comes back, with the question:

Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you're gonna die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?

I think we can all identify with this. I am sure that the very first time you meditated you went through some version of this, not knowing how to handle the silence.

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called "Don't Wait: Pause," inspired by David Cain's wonderful essay "How to Walk Across a Parking Lot." Learning to work with silence can be hard but is ultimately a key part of our practice.

I have linked below a fully guided thirty minute meditation on "Don't Wait: Pause," where we work on silence by moving our mindset from 'waiting' for the time to end to 'pausing' and being present. It's a lot longer than one second! If you wish feel free to use it in your meditation practice. Whatever you do, I hope that in the coming week you can recognize the moments of silence and, rather than waiting for the next distraction, practice being present.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. One of the best known songs on the album is "Isn't it Ironic," a song where she list a number of unfortunate things that could happen and declares them 'ironic.' Despite it's success the song has also been widely ridiculed for the simple fact that this isn't what 'irony' means, and that what se is describing is just plain misfortune. Even the musical references the fact that this is a misuse of the term. My own feeling is that if she had used the word 'dukkha' instead of 'ironic' she would have nailed it. Maybe not as catchy but far more accurate. What do you think?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Soggy, Not Soggy

Soggy, Not Soggy

The weather this weekend has been lovely - cold, crisp and clear. Possibly my favorite time of the year. Of course this won't last, soon we will inevitably get that half-mist-half-rain that threatens to soak you through even though it hardly seems like it is raining. I was born and brought up in Southern England and now live in the Pacific Northwest, and the one thing they both have in common is that the weather can be described in just one word. Soggy.

I think soggy is a great word, one of those words that speaks to a shared experience. You probably have a specific image of your own, maybe of long wet grass or trying to read a map in the rain or getting back home from a walk after an unexpected downpour or getting out of a tent in the early morning with everything covered in dew. It is one of those evocative words that naturally causes our minds to jump to a specific experience.

The Buddha didn't want his monks to be soggy. Now, remember the monks lived a life that was largely spent outside, and as I mentioned last week they lived in an area where for several months of the year there was intense rainfall. So the monks knew all about being soggy, and just like us they probably had very specific memories and images that came up when they were exhorted not to be soggy.

There is even a 'Soggy Sutta,' the Avassuta Sutta. I know, it's a great name and one that makes me smile. This sutta takes place in a brand new, luxurious hall that the locals had just built and that they had invited the Buddha to teach in. After the locals had left to return to their own houses the Buddha asks the Venerable Maha Moggallana to give a dhamma talk to his fellow monks. Now I can only guess that the fact that they were in this dry hall protected from the elements inspired Ven. Moggallana to use the simile of being soggy. So what does it mean to be 'soggy?' Moggallana tells us:

And how is one soggy? There is the case where a monk, when seeing a form via the eye, is, in the case of pleasing forms, committed to forms and, in the case of displeasing forms, afflicted by forms. He remains with body-mindfulness not present, and with limited awareness. And he does not discern, as it actually is present, the awareness-release & discernment-release where those evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen cease without trace.

He repeats this for perceiving sounds, smells, taste, touch and thoughts.

What he is saying is that we are 'soggy' when we perceive these things and allow ourselves to be caught up by the pleasant things and aversion to the unpleasant things, and while doing so we fail to be truly present and are unaware of what is really going on. This is being soggy.

So how does Moggallana suggest we avoid being 'soggy?'

And how is one not soggy? There is the case where a monk, when seeing a form via the eye, is not, in the case of pleasing forms, committed to forms nor, in the case of displeasing forms, afflicted by forms. He remains with body-mindfulness present, and with immeasurable awareness. And he discerns, as it actually is present, the awareness-release & discernment-release where those evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen cease without trace.

So not-sogginess comes about by not getting caught up in the pleasant, or in aversion to the unpleasant, and by retaining presence and awareness.

And that, of course is what we practice. To be present, aware and not caught up in the whirlwind of the things we perceive and experience. To not be soggy.

So whatever the weather brings you this coming week, wherever you are in the world and whatever you experience, I wish you all to be not-soggy.

Metta, Chris.

P.S. As an aside, in the middle of the sutta Ven. Moggallana goes into a metaphor of how Mara - the personification of spiritual unskillfulness, death and evil - can gain entry by burning down a dry grass house but not a clay house - interesting because it is a close parallel to the parable of the wise man in the Christian tradition and, of course, the traditional fairy tale of the three little pigs. Think Mara as Big Bad Wolf! You can read it in the full sutta, though I have to say Moggallana can definitely be accused of mixing metaphors with sogginess and resistance to fire! The message remains though of the need to be structurally sound, built from sound materials and 'not soggy.'

 P.P.S. Below I have linked a fully guided meditation on staying present - feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way you feel helps.

"Avassuta Sutta: Soggy" (SN 35.202), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.202.than.html .

Photo by Rebecca Campbell on Unsplash

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Fall Back

Fall Back

About fifteen years ago I headed down to the local yoga studio where I was leading the regular Sunday evening sit. When I got there I was the first there as usual, and I opened up and set out my cushion and sat waiting for the others to come.

In those days we had a small but loyal group, but our numbers had be dwindling. I had told myself that I would keep leading the group for as long as people came. But this particular Sunday seven o'clock came and no-one had arrived. I decided to just sit on my own for the hour and then go back home.

But around twenty to eight I heard a kerfuffle in the reception area and the hushed but happy voices of a few people arriving. Confused I stood up and went out to meet them, and they greeted me normally as if nothing was happening. It was at that point that I twigged that the clocks had gone back and, it appeared, I was the only one who had not realized! Around half a dozen people turned up, and yes I did get some ribbing when I told them what had happened.

The clocks went back here today. Nowadays it is harder to make the mistake I did that year with our phones and computers, but it is still possible to get confused, and it is still common for our body clocks to not want to make the change. I'm not going to get into the clock-change argument, but suffice to say I won't be upset if we abandon the process completely as other countries are beginning to do.

One positive thing the clock changing does do for me is to mark a seasonal change. This year has been weird in this area due to the abnormal weather patterns (snow in April - 80° in October) but even so this weekend has felt like a shift as we enter the darker season.

I have written before about how I like to follow the tradition of many cultures in the spring of thinking of new birth and new beginnings. In the fall I like to follow the return to the earth, to reconnect with nature, to reassess as we 'hunker down' for the cold and wet.

This idea of allowing our practice to follow the practicalities of the seasons is of course nothing new, and almost all traditions have some version of it. The Buddha in his day instigated what we now call the 'Rains Retreat' or 'Rains Residence,' a period of three months from roughly July to October. This corresponded with the local monsoons, a time when travel was dangerous to the traveler, to crops and to animals. So the monks committed to stay in one place and this formed a central part of the monastic year. Nowadays many traditions follow the same pattern but sometimes translated to match the local climate - so for example Plum Village in France practice their retreat between September and December.

However we practice we can use the rhythms of the seasons to inspire us - and to return us to an awareness of the world around us. What I like about the concept of the Rains Retreat is that while on the one hand it's roots were immensely practical, the requirement to not travel and stay in one place is a wonderful opportunity to refresh, renew and reconnect. For me, I find that this time is an excellent time to practice finding some stillness. I have linked below a fully guided meditation on this that you can use in your own practice if you wish.

Metta, Chris.

PS. Those of you who have been reading this letter for a while will know that I have been traveling and had other commitments for a number of weeks. Thank you for your patience while I have been gone! It has been a mix of family, pleasure and work travel and commitments. There have been high highs and low lows and plenty of opportunity to practice equanimity - not that I always managed to! I am glad now that I can stay in one place for a while!

Photo by Abdul A on Unsplash