If you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained.
Listen Up there!
Buddhist Meditation is about listening, about seeing, about knowing
There is a different sort of activity often called meditation but which should rather be called contemplation. Contemplation involves an element of active thinking. Often this takes the form of a led envisioning in which the leader tells a story which the meditators follow internally, creating a moving picture of the story as if they were in the story themselves. The sort of thing that I mean often starts with something like; ‘You are walking down a forest path. On either side of you are spreading oak and beech trees which reach up over your head so that you just catch glimpses of the blue sky beyond. You can hear the leaves rustling in the light breeze and the sweet sounds of many birds singing in the branches…..’ and so on. The journey invites you, at some point to continue on your own without the leader prompting you to see what happens and whether you find some special message or symbol before you are guided back to the start of the journey and the room you are meditating in.
There is nothing wrong with this sort of contemplation with it’s rather shamanistic overtones but it is not Buddhist meditation. Or perhaps I should say not the Buddhist meditation that this article is going to concern itself with. I say that because there are active Buddhist meditations, especially in the Tibetan traditions. These generally take the form of internalised rituals in which the meditator creates a mental image of a Buddha or other Buddhist ‘saint’ with very symbolic meaning and then performs, usually again mentally, a series of ritual actions and words before the image. These can be very powerful in terms of developing compassion, spiritual insights and so forth and one needs to have been initiated into them by a teacher who has had much experience of using them him ‘or her’ self. Generally they are only revealed to people who have studied a lot in various disciplines as preparation.
What I want to discuss now is the most basic forms of Buddhist meditation which are Shamatha and Vipassana meditation. Put simply this is just an awareness of what is. However for most people it is not possible just to sit down and be. Sooner or later the meditator gets fascinated and absorbed by the thoughts that are arising and then gets lost in them. Everybody who does not meditate, if asked if they could just be conscious of being, of what is going on around them and what is passing through their mind, will confidently say that they can and is amazed when they try it to find that they can’t. Gurgief said that most people are asleep most of the time, but because when anyone or thing calls them to attention they are for that moment aware of being there, they do not notice where they are the rest of the time.
Here is a simple and harmless exercise that you could do if you have not discovered this inability to stay aware for any length of time. Just sit comfortably on a chair, (no fancy lotus position needed for this,) and count slowly up to ten, perhaps one digit for every in-breath. When you get to ten (if you get to ten!) just start again. Suddenly you will realise with a start that your mind has wandered and forgotten all about counting. You might still be counting, or you might have stopped but you had gone woolgathering following other thoughts. There are all sorts of exercises designed in a similar way such as looking at a candle flame or reciting a simple mantra and many teachers of meditation start their pupils with an exercise like this and keep them coming back to this practice for many months or years in the hope that it will develop the ability to focus awareness on something and keep it there.
The basic Buddhist meditation is just to sit, allowing thoughts, sensations and outside events to come and go. At first, and for a long time, this is practiced in a formal way with the guidance of a meditation teacher. For a long time the thoughts and sensation sooner or later overwhelm the meditator and the have that snap-out-of-it-moment when they realise the awareness of being there has gone. Then it is the time just to refocus on that primal awareness and continue. Eventually that awareness becomes stronger and lasts longer and the bewitching thoughts and events come and go but do not sweep the meditator away. Many ways in which this happens and stages that some people go through have been recorded by seasoned meditators but knowledge of them is not essential to meditation. It knows where it is going and has an energy of its own. Eventually that awareness will spread out from the formal meditation and start to be present in more and more life situations and awareness of what Being is really about naturally emerges.
A meditator has one sure measure and it is this- that if they can be naturally aware even in the midst of distracting events, thoughts or feelings they are well trained.
Everyone in the journey of life owes much to the people who inspire, teach and support them and every one would probably think that there is one person above all others who has been their source of wisdom in their life. Some of the Tibetan Buddhists have a tradition of talking of their Perfect Teacher; perhaps we might not go that far, but who would we think of?
Some people might feel that it was one or both of their parents whose guidance early in life was a source of wisdom that they have been able to work with all their lives. Some might turn to a particular relative, a grandparent or perhaps and aunt, uncle or older sibling who gave them the inner strength they needed or is perhaps even still a person they can go to when life is hard or puzzling. I know, for myself, that my grandma, although I did not see a lot of her, remains visibly in my mind and I feel I know what she would have said or done in her wise way in many a situation.
Moving on I remember a teacher at school who treated us teenage boys as if we were adults and listened and talked about our many problems, dreams and desires at that age. He was an English teacher and he also made the texts that we studied relevant to our growing minds. It is to him that I owe a debt of gratitude for introducing me to the world of the arts that has in its turn been a great source both of pleasure and worldly wisdom. Perhaps you to can think of a teacher who was a great influence to you in your life and shaped some important aspect of your future development. I know some people went out into the world of work much younger than I did and might think of some person in the work place who took an interest in them, saw their potential and helped them in their life direction. Many years ago my son was languishing in a mechanical engineering apprenticeship when the IT consultant in the factory took an interest in him and realised that he had the sort of methodical mind that would appreciate computer programming. His encouragement changed my son's career path and he is now a top executive in a telecoms company.
Perhaps, however, like me, you have a spiritual aspect to your life which has led you to need to explore that aspect of life and, given the remit of these articles, that is the centre of thought for this consideration of teachers. In my case there is one special friend, called Ken some fifteen or so years older than I was, and now alas long dead, who came into my life when I was turning twenty. Ken was not of any particular spiritual school or belief but he was what is sometimes called an old soul and had extraordinary powers to help another person examine their own spiritual life if they were so inclined. I could write a book about what Ken did for me and I shall owe him a debt of gratitude all my life. But without his love and support, as well as the challenges that he set to my arrogance and self-opinionated-ness ,I would be even more immature than I am now But above all it was the spiritual vistas that he opened for me that set the directions that have been most important to me in later life Perhaps you, as my reader, can think of someone like that in your life or perhaps you wish that could have met someone like that. If you are in the latter position I would remind you of the saying that when the student is ready the teacher finds them. So you are already close to finding that person. It was certainly true in my case.
Finally I would mention the sort of spiritual teacher that many of us have met at some time in our life and whom you might, yourself, follow. I'm thinking of the sort of spiritual teacher who comes from some particular school or religion and has a following of a number of, or many, followers and often teaches by a mixture of talks and individual interviews. Over the years I have worked with several such people of different faiths and traditions and all of them, in one way or another have been helpful. Some people find that one particular teacher particularly resonates with them and they chose to work with the for a long period of time.
But; and now perhaps I am going to surprise you; non of any of these people is your Perfect Teacher. However well they know you, and in my case Ken seemed to know my every thought and desire, non of them know you better than yourself. Perhaps that idea may surprise, or maybe it does not. Maybe you say; 'But that is my whole problem. I do not know myself well enough.' But ultimately no-one is going to be able to know your better than you will if you persevere. Your external teachers and guides can only really do one thing for you, which is to wake up your own dharma, your own inner guru, and once awakened and listened to intently that will guide you through your spiritual journey. Remember you are already perfect Buddha nature (or whatever you like to call your soul) your only problem is you have forgotten it. But that inner nature will act as your conscience and will tell you if your actions and thoughts are true, loving and honest or not and even if the voice is not too clear or compelling right now, the more you listen the clearer that voice will be.
You are your own Perfect Teacher.
Our society has liberated many taboos but death still remains largely hidden away both in our society and in our minds. Yet it is one of the few certainties in our life. There are many conjectures about death and many people have written about what happens to us after death but since we have not travelled that journey ourselves we cannot know for certain who is right and who is wrong. People often think of the Tibetan Book of the Dead when it comes to Buddhist thought on death but for us on this side of the great divide it can only be conjecture. Some of us have had a close brush with death in some form or another; be it a life threatening accident or illness; but we have survived and whatever our experiences it was not the finality of actual death. Perhaps, however, it has served to make us aware of our mortality and the fragility of our human life.
It is, I think, no bad thing to contemplate the fact of our eventual death even if we hope to live a long and active life before we reach that moment. What can we know about death and how can we prepare for that moment? What does the fact of death have to tell us about our life?
Some of us have found ourselves in the position of supporting someone through the dying process and I can say, that for myself, it has been an awesome and demanding privilege to do this even if it has been personally very instructive. Observation of the process of dying, especially of someone who goes through the process as a result of age and slow degeneration of the natural functions, reveals a lot and the following thoughts of mine reflect Buddhist teachings on this subject. We can see that as things fall away they are not anything that will survive death. The body certainly goes, it is easy to see that is not us. The deterioration of the mind is a harder thing to accept. With an illness like Altziemers we can see that the personality, our memories, our mental abilities are all just functions of the brain. As the brain, the physical organ, breaks down so the mind goes with it. The best Buddhist teaching directs us to see in this that all we think of as ourselves, which they call ego, is just an illusion, like a picture on a television screen. When the set is switched off the whole drama of that self just stops. That which is real, that which is eternal, is not personal. The awareness, or basic consciousness, on which our lives are projected has no characteristics, it is of a universal function like time or space, of which we are one temporary instance.
This is not easy to understand or experience but once we live in that truth the worries of the world fall into place and our knowledge of our oneness with all things expresses itself as natural compassion.
You may have noticed that this article on dying starts where the previous one of exploring the spiritual life ended and that is not without reason for the qualities that we develop in life are the very ones that we will bring to our death. And the first thing we have to recognise is the unreal quality of our ego, our sense of individual self.
Seen in this light our death tells us that we are one with all things and that we are no better than our neighbour, or indeed any living thing. This compassionate view of the universe must inevitably lead us to try and practice virtuous behaviour. As time goes by we find ever new ways to help others and as we find out more about ourselves and the depth of illusion in which we live and the pain that it brings us we become more skilled in our practice of compassion.
This mindfulness and awareness will gradually make us more peaceful in our life and eventually in our death. It can only be good to come to death not with the dubious bravado of being able to say, 'I did it my way.' But rather with the quiet knowledge of who you truly are.
And finally we can see that in order to practice in this way we need to develop a strong determination so as not to be knocked off course by life's unruly waves and storms. This determination can be built up by regularly reminding ourselves of the fundamentals of existence, meeting with good people who are travelling the same path (But not to the exclusion of people in every state of existence), reading and studying the way and meditating on our basic awareness. That sort of meditation, which entails resting in Being and allowing the mind it's freedom to Be, rather than trying to force the mind into some state of reverence or ecstasy, is death of Ego itself, which is ultimately the only thing that will die.
You come home after a day out. Maybe your partner had organised a little no-fuss meal as it is your birthday. You open the door into the living room which is all dark and suddenly the lights go on; people burst out from behind chairs, curtains and doors, all blowing party screamers, letting off poppers, showering you with confetti and singing Happy Birthday. What a great unexpected surprise... if you like that sort of thing.
But not every unexpected happening is so pleasant. In fact most unexpected things fit within the range of mildly inconveniencing to down right awful. As human beings we are programmed to look for pattern and order in our lives and we are happiest planning and structuring our futures. Very few of us actually thrive on the unexpected. We say, 'It came out of the blue.' whether it is an unexpected letter from the tax man asking for money back because of an administrative error or the sudden death of a close relative.
I think that it could be said that there are two main sorts of unexpected unpleasant events. The first I will call natural catastrophes. They tend to involve things rather than people and I'm thinking of things like roofs blowing off, car accidents or, on a larger scale, earthquakes and the like. The other I would describe as involving, or being caused by people. They take many forms from a sudden death like I mentioned above through to situations created by the actions, thoughts and feelings of others. I have in mind here the sort of situation where a work colleague suddenly tells you that you really irritate them in some way, or management suddenly announce that redundancies are on the way and you are in the front line. More personal and far more devastating is something coming from someone you love and live with. Someone I knew suddenly found themselves sitting across the table from their husband whilst he quietly and decidedly told her that he was no longer in love with her and he was leaving. Nothing that had happened up to that point had given her any idea that this was coming.
So- the bolt comes out of the blue and from my own reactions I would suggest that we react at that moment in one of two main ways.
We may be swept away by the need to react to events or by the emotions that it generates; or may be by a mixture of both. When, for instance, it is a life threatening situations we may respond almost by instinct and a rush of actions occurs as we try to cope. There is no gap between the arising of the situation and the response and it is only later when the immediate crisis is passing that we start to reflect on what has happened and start to plan a way forward. Often when it is a situation generated by another person, or people, a huge rush of emotion is generated, which may be anger, shame, embarrassment or one of many strong feeling depending on the situation and your particular mental patterns but, in any case, you are overwhelmed by the feelings and it may be some time before you come to consciousness of yourself and can reflect on what is happening.
The other common reaction to the unexpected is to feel disassociated from what is happening. This is often expressed in the phrase, 'This can't be happening to me.' and for a while it seems as if there is a huge glass wall between yourself and the event. It's almost as if you are in a dream watching events and even your reactions.
In the case of either reaction that I have described to the unexpected, or indeed to any other reaction that you may have, there is a moment, before your uncontrolled response kicks in, when you can meet the situation with real consciousness. That is to say not swept away, not totally alienated, but aware in the moment and accepting and acknowledging what is happening. You know that stuff is happening, it is happening to you but that 'you' is just an expression of the Universal Consciousness that we are all part of. I have talked about this awareness behind phenomena that has no intrinsic qualities in itself and it is an important part of Buddhist thought. It is often called Shunyata.
But this 'seizing the moment', although it makes the situation manageable when it happens is not easy to grasp. That is why the Lojong texts on which these articles are based talks about 'joining the unexpected with meditation'. Only some considerable meditation practice and practice of insightful awareness will create the mind set where this joining the situation in the right way has a chance to occur- and if my experience is anything to go by, even then not always!
But this being one with the moment and with all creation is true compassion. Compassion is not about wanting to be kind to animals and old ladies and doing good deeds. It is about knowing to your core that you are one with all creation so that compassionate action for others, yourself and things is not a choice, not an act of will, it is just what you do.