contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: mindfulness

POEM: PIUTE CREEK

One granite ridge

A tree, would be enough

Or even a rock, a small creek,

A bark shred in a pool.

Hill beyond hill, folded and twisted

Tough trees crammed

In thin stone fractures

A huge moon on it all, is too much.

The mind wanders. A million

Summers, night air still and the rocks

Warm. Sky over endless mountains.

All the junk that goes with being human

Drops away, hard rock wavers

Even the heavy present seems to fail

This bubble of a heart.

Words and books

Like a small creek off a high ledge

Gone in the dry air.

 

A clear, attentive mind

Has no meaning but that

Which sees is truly seen.

No one loves rock, yet we are here.

Night chills. A flick

In the moonlight

Slips into Juniper shadow.

Back there unseen

Cold proud eyes

Of Cougar or Coyote

Watch me rise and go.

 

Gary Snyder. From The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness and Joy edited by John Brem. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2017

 

ATTENTIVENESS AND WONDER

I began my contemplative journey with a sense of mysticism, which I would now reframe as “attentiveness and wonder” (1). My path has become firmly this-worldly, a stance that has varied over the six years since I launched the inquiry, at a solo Samhain Druid ritual. The group practice that developed for contemplative Druidry was naturalistic from the beginning, finding the numinous within the mundane. The Buddhist sangha with which I am linked (2) is also world oriented. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of all that the earth contains, and a way of wisdom and compassion in every day life.

My path continues to be a contemplative inquiry. It is an inquiry, because I am in an open process of bringing my truth into being, a truth which remains provisional, agnostic, limited by my human horizons. Within this inquiry, contemplative methods both train the attention and open up spaces for wonder.  Jon Kabat-Zinn, initiator of the secular mindfulness movement, calls it ‘reverence’. For him this touches us when we are “transported by some marvelous strain of music, or when struck by the artistry of a great painting … I am speaking of the mystery of the very existence of an event or object, its ‘isness’. In the case of a work of art, even the artist can’t tell how it came about” (3). At such times, it is better leave words alone and allow our senses, and our feelings, to speak for themselves.

But Kabat-Zinn warns that, since we don’t have words for “ for such numinous and luminous feelings”, we often forget how prevalent they are in our experience. We can easily become inured to them and cease noticing that we even have such feelings or are capable of having them, so caught up we can be in a certain way of knowing to the exclusion of others.” (3). This provides one of my motivations for formal spiritual work (the others having to do with wisdom and compassion).  It helps to me to shake up the mindset that stops me from noticing. To speak of the results in an Existentialist’s language of ‘attentiveness and wonder’ works well for me, better than my older use of ‘mysticism’.

(1) Maurice Merleau-Ponty Phenomenology of Perception. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1945 (first published in English by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962). Merleau-Ponty wrote in his preface: “Philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing the truth into being. … It is as painstaking as the works of Balzac, Proust, Valery or Cezanne – by reason of the same kind of attentiveness and wonder, the same demand for awareness, the same will to seize the meaning of the world or history as that meaning comes into being”.

(2) https://coiuk.org/

(3)Jon Kabat-Zinn Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness Hyperion e-Book, 2005

HOW TO FLOURISH

In an earlier post (1) I began a discussion about personal vows, and how they support of our flourishing. The key is to identify specific intentions about how we want to live, to declare them and then to work with them. In this context, it is important that they are personal and not connected to a third party or cause. We decide them for ourselves. We interpret them ourselves. We monitor them ourselves. It is an inner authority that gives them their power.

Later (2) I discussed the ancient Greek concept of ‘virtue ethics’ as a rationale for this approach. I would probably not use this label for myself. Modern English gives ‘virtue’ as slightly pious and solemn ring. It suggests the possibility of presenting an inauthentic front, not present in the earliest understandings. These concerned crafting a life with self-awareness and cultivating desired qualities and skills. The emphasis is on process and practice

In both posts I described personal work using this method. I have now completed a set of five vows, which for me seems like the maximum to work with. They are notes to myself as I move through time and chance, enough to set directions, but not enough to regulate specific conduct in specific situations. The core idea is to improve my own quality of life and that of others.

 

May I be mindful, open hearted and creative

May I honour and enjoy the gift of life, in my sensing, feeling, thinking, and intuition

May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others

May I experience abundance in simplicity

May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as through supporting larger projects

 

I believe in these vows, whilst knowing that I will not fulfil them all the time, or in the fullest measure. Yet I do expect them to make a difference. I have already opened myself to continuous learning about what the key value words mean in practice. How do I recognize, in sensory, behavioural and social terms: my mindfulness, open heartedness, creativity, honouring, enjoyment, love, compassion, abundance, simplicity and welfare?

If I am not actively in process with them, these words can fade into pompous rhetoric. Worse still, they could become ammunition in a form of virtue signaling. Meanings themselves may vary in different contexts, and one aspect of ‘creativity’, will be sensitivity to different circumstances, and flexibility within them.

I have been working with personal vows for a couple of months now, long enough to get used to the process and develop what seems like the full set using the best language. Although these vows draw on my life in both Druid and Buddhist settings, they are personal. I do not see them as belonging either to a Druid or a Buddhist path. They are about mindful living in a re-enchanted world They are my personal guide on how to flourish.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/virtues-and-vows/

MINDFULNESS AS A WAY OF LIFE

According to Thich Nhat Hahn’s Community of Interbeing (1) “mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply.” This approach turns mindfulness from a set of practices into a way of life, and this view of mindfulness has helped to draw me in to the local sangha of the COI as a fellow traveler.

That said, we have five formal practice arenas: mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of eating, mindfulness of walking, mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of bells. A lot of this is familiar to me. For the last seven years my daily practice has included some form of sitting meditation, walking meditation and body/energy work. I already include outside walking meditation and exercise. I use bells in my dedicated sacred space at home, and love the liminal after echo as they pass out of hearing. But bringing things together within this community encourages me to refine and deepen this work.

Checking in with myself, I notice that I have been only half-conscious about eating. In this community, eating mindfulness is not just about slow and appreciative eating. It is also about the global context, “reflecting deeply on what we buy and what we eat”. The COI gold standard is to be vegan. This is a hot button topic in Druidry and Paganism too. It’s an area that I feel nudged to look at again.

I also notice that I’ve done less conscious relaxation than I would like. Yet I know its softening, opening, and enabling effects – a balance to rectify there, I feel. Mindfulness may sound like an effortful regimen, but it doesn’t have to be that way. On sitting meditation specifically, the COI website approvingly quotes Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth century Japanese poet, when he writes:

Sitting quietly

Doing nothing

Spring comes

And the grass

Grows

By itself.

 

(1) https://coiuk.org

 

CRAVING THROUGH BUDDHIST EYES

“We are learning to unbind the mind from the grip of craving”, according to the teachers of my course on the Buddhist Four Noble Truths (1). The problem about unbinding the mind, they acknowledge, is that we usually can’t do it as a simple act of will. Going that way, we can end up at war with ourselves.

The purpose of practices like meditation, in this context, is to create a mental landscape that favours awareness and understanding. The craving impulse is likely tied to an underlying discontent – something wrong, or lacking, or missing. Through practice, we learn to create moments of pause in which we’re “sensitized to the impulse” of moving towards or away from bundles of feelings, thoughts, images and desires. As part of this increased awareness, we may learn to tolerate discontent, rather than automatically attempting to solve it. During such discontent, a question in the Zen tradition asks: ‘what in this moment is truly lacking?’. We may find ourselves discovering a sensitivity, kindness or capacity for gladness that begins to address our sense of lack and to calm the craving.

Going a little deeper, we can look at mythologies in our lives that tell us, ‘if only I had X, I would be happy’. This includes material objects and conditions, but also expectations of other people, in which we make them responsible for our happiness. We learn to identify our own habitual patterns built on assumptions of this kind We also learn to hold the tension of unfulfilled craving – whether because we don’t get what we want, or because we do get we want and remain unsatisfied. This in turn allows us better to understand the pay-offs, or lack thereof, of satisfying cravings. A different kind of strategy is to “acknowledge how much good stuff we have experienced and how much pleasure we have experienced”.

I notice that this discussion is highly psychologized and reflects the marriage of modern psychology and modern Buddhism with ‘mindfulness’ as their offspring. In a sense, we are witnessing a new kind of Buddhism. I have now read translations of some early Indian texts. Although the teachers of my Four Noble Truths course are versed in these texts and loyal to them, the cultural feeling tone – to me – seems vastly different. I would read from them that the real cause of suffering is being born at all. This is again different from the marriage of Taoism and Buddhism in China, birthing Chan (and subsequently Zen in Japan). Here the focus is on breaking out of a prison – of conventional language, thinking and identity –  for the encounter with ‘original face’.

So, behind the immediate concern with the Four Noble Truths (or ennobling tasks) there is another inquiry, concerned with what Buddhism (or post Buddhist Dharma) will look like as it becomes indigenized in the West, especially North America as the centre of gravity for these developments. When a new culture adopts an exotic religion, it will inevitably change it. This is happening now in the case of Western Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths course sheds valuable light on the evolution spiritual cultures as well as on how to deal (my own words) with a bitter sweet poignancy at the heart of life.

(1) This course is concerned with Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, re-framed as four ennobling tasks. It is provided by Bodhi College – https://bodhi-college.org/  –  for the Tricycle online teaching programme – https://learn.tricycle.org/ . The teachers are Akincano Weber, Christina Feldman, Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, all very experienced in this field.

 

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: THE EVERYDAY SUBLIME

Stephen Batchelor explores his view that “the mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it”. For me, this discussion has a resonance beyond the ranks of ‘secular Buddhism’. The passage below is from his book After Buddhism: rethinking the Dharma in a secular age (1). I am attracted to his view of ‘the everyday sublime’ and for me at least, its relevance extends well beyond Batchelor’s specific context.

“Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime … [It] is about what is happening to this organism as it touches the environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is.’

“As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.

“To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and ‘mine’. It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a life-long practice.

“The ordinary sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task [NB Batchelor’s reframe of the Buddhist four noble truths JN].  …

  • An open-hearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation
  • A letting go of the habitual restrictive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation
  • A conscious valorization of those moments in which such reactive patterns have stilled
  • A commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically and creatively to the situation in hand.

“Understood in this way, meditation is not about gaining proficiency in technical procedures claimed to guarantee attainments that correspond to the dogmas of a particular religious orthodoxy. Nor is its goal to achieve a privileged, transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, mind, or God. In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the ongoing cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience within a framework of ethical values and goals.

…..

“As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and questions what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening. And it begins with the breath, our primordial relationship to the fabric of the world in which we are embedded.”

  • Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015

MAKING PERSONAL VOWS

On Monday I completed a Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) course (1). It was not strictly Buddhist, but the teachers and all the participants were sufficiently Buddhist influenced to have had existing experience of both of mindfulness and loving-kindness practices. At the same time I believe that the overall approach can offer something for anyone concerned with the issues addressed.

One of these is making and living with vows. In this context, we make the vows to ourselves and there are two key criteria. The first is that the vow anchors an intention, rather than operating as a binding contract. The second is that vows flow out of our core values. Hence, we need to get clear about these values before making any vows.

The process for checking core values is a simple one. Bringing warm-hearted awareness to ourselves and our experience, we imagine being near the end of our lives and looking back. We ask ourselves what has given us the deepest satisfaction, joy and contentment. What values did we embody that gave our life meaning? In other words, what core values were expressed in our lives? Possible examples given by the people who developed the MSC programme are: compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature.

Having done this, we select a core value that we would like to manifest for the rest of our lives and write it in the form of a vow. In the construction of the vow, ‘May I …’ language is recommended. This strengthens a kind of commitment which is about working towards, and deepening into, the expression of the core value, rather than getting tied up in a drama of binary obedience/disobedience.

When making my own vows, I found it good to remember that they are personal and not set in concrete. They can be further changed and developed – or even dropped, if they cease to sit well. They are tools rather than rules. With the two below, I found that care with language was key to the credibility of the vow. Worded to be both simple and demanding, such vows can allow for degrees of fulfilment, and provide a kind of coaching.

May I be loving and compassionate in my personal interactions

Mindful Self-Compassion begins with ‘self’ but doesn’t – and couldn’t meaningfully – stop there. One of its merits is to resource loving-kindness and compassion to others and in the wider world. It is a preventative measure against cold charity and compassion fatigue. In the context of this vow, loving-kindness and compassion are specific terms. Loving-kindness is a basic stance of positive regard, not necessarily fuelled by natural empathy or emotion beyond a basic inclination to warmth. Compassion is loving-kindness in a situation where the other person or being is suffering. MSC, and the wider culture of Buddhist lovingkindness, provide working methods that include being kind to ourselves when we struggle with the stance of loving-kindness and compassion towards others. In working with this vow, I am not dependent on factors like self-image or passing sentiment. I have practices to support me in making the vow meaningful.

May I experience abundance in simplicity

This vow depends on a dance between two qualities that might be thought of as pulling in opposite directions. To the extent I might experience a tension myself, I am challenged to develop my understanding both of ‘abundance’ and of ‘simplicity’. One synthesis, an important one, finds a path through living lightly on the Earth as a personal witness in the face of world-pillaging and climate crisis. There’s a set of lifestyle choices to be made here, finding riches within apparent frugality. But for immediate experience, I go straight to simplicity. By this I mean slowing down, and opening to the simple now. I immerse myself in the texture of what is abundantly here and freely given. I look out of my window at late summery yellow-green ivy … abundance-in-simplicity comes in and sits on my shoulders. The point of the vow is to remind me of the miracle of being alive and to open me more fully to the gift.

(1) https://centerformsc.org/

POEM: THE JOURNEY

This poem by Mary Oliver is included in the material for my Mindful Self-Compassion course. I wonder how many readers feel some resonance with it.

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations……

though their melancholy

was terrible.

 

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

HERE-AND-NOW STONE

I am carefully sitting in a balance of warmth and shade. In the palm of my right hand is a small sandy brown stone. My four fingers are gently folded over it, the thumb resting beside them, unobtrusively pointing out. The stone is a good fit and the texture relatively smooth, with just enough variation to offer tactile interest. This is a pleasing stone to hold, as it exchanges warmth with my friendly hand. I feel in relationship with this stone, most likely collected from a beach though I don’t know when and where.

I am doing this as part of a formal exercise – you might think, a Druid one. I can recall ones very like it. But in this case, it is linked to a Mindful Self Compassion programme, research based but with an explicitly Buddhist inspiration. I’m asked to enjoy the stone. After some time I open my hand and gaze at the subtle variations in colour, and a dusting of tiny white crystalline spots. I pick the stone up and rub it against my skin. There’s just enough roughness in the contact to generate a real aliveness.  The taste is slightly salty. I am thoroughly engaged with the stone.

The framers of the exercise link this combination of focus and appreciation with coming home to the present moment, a place with no room for regret or worry, past or future. Their recommendation, going forward, is to keep the stone in my pocket, or somewhere handy. Then, whenever I feel swept up in hurt feelings or distracted ones, I can take myself back home by rubbing the stone with my fingers. I am sure that this is true and I will begin using it this way. Overnight, it can be the first stone on my Guanyin altar.

I also believe that my Druid background adds value. If I treat this action purely as a psychological exercise, it might come to seem a little calculated and Pavlovian. In my universe, I am entering a relationship with an entity from the mineral kingdom, receiving a gift, and hopefully offering one too. I believe that this understanding will add power, beauty and magic to an apparently simple activity.

MINDFULNESS MUST BE ENGAGED

Social action: what to do and how to do it. An issue for any spiritual community ….

“When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help the people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection, we decided to do both – to go out to help people, and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?

“We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, then many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things. Are you massaging our Mother Earth every time your foot touches her? Are you planting seeds of joy and peace? I try to do exactly that with every step, and I know that our Mother Earth is most appreciative. Peace is every step. Shall we continue our journey?”

Thich Nhat Hanh Peace is every step: the path of mindfulness in daily life London: Rider, 1995

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