Posts by Navachitta

“Stone, Sea and Sand: Poems and Reflections on the Buddha’s Teaching on Impermanence” by Satyadevi

sudarshanaloka stupa

Between November 2010 and February 2011, New Zealand, a country of 4 million people, suffered two of the biggest disasters in its history.

The Chilean mining disaster had many of us riveted to our TV screens as miner after miner was brought to safety, having been trapped underground for 69 days. This was not to be the case in New Zealand. After an explosion at the Pike River Mine in New Zealand’s South Island, anxious families, buoyed by the Chilean experience, waited for long days and nights for a breakthrough that might bring their men home. None of the 29 miners and contractors survived.

Only three months later, Christchurch, New Zealand’s third largest city, was decimated by its second major earthquake in a year. This event killed 185 and maimed many more, both physically and mentally. Currently many of the historical buildings are being demolished and hundreds of city residents are in no-man’s-land awaiting the bureaucratic Earthquake Commission’s decision as to whether their homes are viable or not. They have been through a freezing winter with major cracks in walls with only tarpaulins to keep the wind out, a bit like Haiti, with snow. Homicide, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicides have risen indicating many inhabitants continue to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

The desire to make sense of these tragedies led Satyadevi to compile and publish some of her poetry, donating half the proceeds to the Christchurch Earthquake Red Cross Appeal, with the remainder going towards improving facilities at the beautiful 250 acre valley that is home to Sudarshanaloka Retreat Centre. The photo on the cover features Dhardo Rimpoche’s stupa at the facility.

Satyadevi’s volume combines threads of the raw energy of New Zealand with her Buddhist reflections on impermanence. Receptivity to the underlying drumbeat of this nation’s painful seismic birth and her awareness that it is all but a splash on the tabula rasa of becoming, imbues her poetry with poignancy, beauty and acceptance.

Satyadevi’s own personal grief, like that of Kisagotami, found universalization and acceptance which she has expressed movingly in waiata (Maori lament)

In ancient India, a young mother called Kisagotami had just lost her young son and was mad with grief. She could not accept that her beloved first born was dead. With the dead child in her arms, she ran from house to house asking for medicine for her little son. At every door she begged: “Please give me some medicine for my child,” but the people replied that medicine would not help any more, the child was dead. Kisagotami refused to accept this, despite the coldness and stiffness of his little body. One kind person suggested she go and find the Buddha who was staying in the Jeta Grove in Anathapindika’s monastery.

She burst into the middle of a discourse being given by the Buddha to a large gathering. Totally despairing and in tears, with the corpse of the child in her arms, she begged the Buddha, “Master, give me medicine for my son.” The Awakened One interrupted his teaching and replied kindly that he knew of a medicine. Amazed, she asked what this could be.

“Mustard seeds,” the Enlightened One replied, astounding everyone present.

The Buddha replied that she need only bring a very small quantity from any house where no one had died. Joyfully Kisagotami ran back to the town. At the first house, she asked whether any mustard seeds were available. “Certainly,” was the reply. But then she remembered to ask the second question, whether anyone had died in this house. “But of course,” the woman told her, and crestfallen, she withdrew. She went from door to door but was unable to find any house where no one had died. The dead are more numerous than the living, she was gravely informed.

Towards evening she finally realized that, as she had suffered, so many others had suffered. Her heart opened in compassion to the reality of universal suffering through death. In this way, the Buddha was able to heal her obsession and bring her to acceptance of reality. Kisagotami no longer refused to believe that her child was dead, but understood that death is the destiny of all beings, sooner or later.

She then became a disciple of the Buddha and found peace.

Satyadevi dedicated her poem “Kisagotami” to the families of the Pike River Miners. She writes:

In time Kisagotami’s heart found full release and the end of grief –
when she perceived that all things worldly must decline
when their conditions cease.

The poetry is not only an expression of the mystery of death but a way in which we can come to terms with it, or if we cannot make sense of it, to use it to become better human beings.

In this crowded world of the sound byte, it is increasingly rare to find material born of deep reflection and solitude. Such a volume of work sings songs of fresh possibilities in a fragmented, troubled era.

Stone, Sea, and Sand is available from Lotus Realm.

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Looking for the silver lining of our dysfunction

“A mess in process”

One of the indisputable realities about being human is that we all have weaknesses. No one escapes this.

Some of us are able to acknowledge these less attractive aspects without being unduly fazed. Others tend to cultivate strategies to help hide the cracks. Yet others convince themselves that their weaknesses are inherent aberrations, with this view then becoming a rationale for indulging in aberrant behaviour. It is the last of these views that I tend to work with in addiction.

Some of us convince ourselves that we are such a waste of space that really, we should commit ourselves to a life of substance-induced mayhem or simply rid the rest of the world of our miserable presence by killing ourselves. This is true suffering.

The Buddha could well have been the best Alcohol and Drug clinician the world has ever seen. His First Noble Truth states that life involves suffering, discontentment, disgruntlement, disillusionment. He then tells us in his Second Noble Truth that suffering (dukkha) has a cause and that that cause is craving.

Wanting things to be a certain way is suffering because it precludes openness to what is, now, in this moment. Not getting what we want involves suffering because we want it so much. Even getting what we do want involves suffering because then we are fearful of losing it. Also, often we realize it isn’t what we wanted after all and now what are we to do once we have married our heart’s desire and find that the beloved has turned into a cold, and rather clammy, green frog?

The Third Noble Truth states that suffering can cease. If we acknowledge that everything that comes into being must, one day, dissolve, we learn to not clutch onto life with such desperation. If we acknowledge that such grasping is tantamount to grabbing a handful of water or holding onto a rainbow, we may reduce this habit of clinging and free our hearts from suffering.

When we embrace the truth of impermanence and even begin to enjoy the ephemeral, fleeting nature of it, we move from desperado mindset to butterfly mindset. We can say ‘no’ to that contracted, grasping human, clutching our booty, hiding out in an emotional desert. With a meditation practice under our belts, we can begin to loosen and lighten up, psychically alighting gently on a leaf, ready to move to the next honeysuckle. Hence we move from contraction and limitation to expansiveness and new possibilities.

Problems arise when not only do we expect changeable, fleeting processes to stay the same but when we also imagine our painful emotions to be permanent, especially when we are lost in them. But in reality, our emotions are even more fleeting than our thoughts. It is often our attitude to our emotions that cause us the suffering. That is probably why the Christians talk of eternal damnation in hell. When we are in hellish states of mind, even a minute feels like an eternity. When we are in heaven, it goes in a flash.

“The First Truth is Sorrow. Be not mocked!
Life which ye treasure is long drawn out agony:
Its pleasures are as birds which light and fly;
Only its pains abide.”
Sir Edwin Arnold The Light of Asia

Why do we perpetuate this fixed view of ourselves as fundamentally flawed, as a complete failure, as incapable of fitting in with societal mores? If we begin to relate to ourselves as a process, we start letting go of the pain. A friend, when first warming up to this concept, referred to himself as “a mess in process.” This is the beginning of true liberation.

Part of the deconstruction of a habit pattern of the mind is in listening to what Behavioural Therapists call Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATS). These can be deconstructed further to reveal core beliefs we cherish deep in our hearts. Albert Ellis, the founder of RET — Rational Emotive Therapy — exhorts us to DISPUTE such distortions.

For example, we might have the negative thought, “I always screw it up because I am so impulsive!”

Ellis tells us to first of all replace the ‘always’ with “sometimes” so we could pathologize ourselves less by saying:

“I sometimes make mistakes because part of me has a habit pattern of the mind that leaps into things without due consideration.”

Let’s take a good look at the silver lining of our alleged dysfunction. For example: What are the benefits of leaping into life without due consideration? Impulsive people have the novelty seeking gene, which scientists attribute to mutation; people with a deficit of Monoamine oxidase enzyme (MAO) live more dangerously than the more balanced amongst us. Even though it may kill us, humanity benefits from people willing to take risks because they don’t take the time to consider the consequences.

One scientific theory is that, had a bunch of Africans with this mutant gene not gotten into their canoes without a clue where they would end up, we may not have been as global a species as we currently are.

Instead of grabbing our dysfunction to use as a weapon to bludgeon ourselves into self-pity, it can be helpful to ponder the more colourful, even beneficial elements to it. How can you be mad at a gene?

If we contain a kindly and light-hearted view of ourselves as a “mess in process” it means we can begin to feel more confident about ourselves and therefore work to align ourselves more with our values. If we see our profound dysfunction in less black and white terms, we can gradually transform our weaknesses into strengths. This moves us away from the pitiful, over-identified, victim mentality which keeps us, inextricably, stuck in the nasty old Slough of Despond.

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From drama to Dharma

I come from a long line of drama queens. My family could create drama out of going to the supermarket. They also drank a lot which enhanced this tendency.

Let’s face it, many of us who have staggered about in the realm of addictive or blow-your-mind substances, have a predisposition towards catastrophizing. Something in us enjoys creating volcanic eruptions out of molehills. Even many of us who have heroically extricated ourselves from substance misuse or abuse have failed to let go the accompanying tendency to see the world in terms of flash crashes, trench warfare, bubonic plague, and other extreme events.

Even though we may be consciously inclined towards the Middle Path and serenity, our unconscious minds hurtle us relentlessly into series upon series of melodramas.

Melodrama, a theatrical term, derives from the Greek word melo, which means music. In theatre, emotions are exaggerated and the storyline is full of exciting events. Many of us would secretly delight in a sound-track to accompany our life performances.

Drama addicts tend to exaggerate, embroider and amplify events in order to draw attention to themselves and/or their world. Sometimes there is a desire to shock, whether by acting out or in telling the story of someone else’s drama.

In the grip of a melodrama the breath becomes shallow, adrenalin kicks in, and the drama addict feels energized and alive. So it can be a challenge for many addicts to stick with meditation. The lurking core belief is that without drama, life would be boring; without telling stories of dramatic events, you would be boring.

Rollercoaster emotions may initially feel energizing but eventually they deplete us. Too much adrenaline and cortisol flooding the system eventually creates a worn out, flat and bored organism.

If we are able to actually identify that we are addicted to drama, meditating regularly may be able to help us move away from our own TV soap opera.

A good strategy in addressing addiction to drama is to reduce our expectations. Conscious and sub-conscious expectations can and do create a world of hurt. When I wait for the bus, I expect it to appear. When it does not appear, a melodramatic reaction arises. Behaving in an overdramatic manner each time an expectation is thwarted adds nothing constructive. Eliminating the expectation and relaxing into what actually is can liberate us from the tyranny of self.

When we behave as fixed entities complete with desires that must be satiated right here, right now, we see the world in terms of what we can extract from it physically, mentally and emotionally. When we crave less and demand less, we find we can love more and accept more. We move from the realm of frustrated hungry ghosts to the realm of equanimity. Appreciating what we have instead of clamouring for what we want, we can abide in plenty, well-being, kindness and beauty.

When we have fewer expectations, melodramas are less frequent. We find we are more able to allow things to be the way they are without needing to adjust or control outcomes.

Meditation sharpens our sense of interconnectedness and process. It helps us move from chipped mug half-empty to exquisite goblet half-full – a necessary step if we are to survive as a species.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

In fact the whole antithesis between self and the rest of the world, which is implied in the doctrine of self-denial, disappears as soon as we have any genuine interest in persons or things outside ourselves. Through such interests a man comes to feel himself part of the stream of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard-ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collocation. All unhappiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack or integration; there is disintegration within the self through lack of co-ordination between the conscious and the unconscious mind; there is lack of integration between the self and society where the two are not knit together by the force of objective interests and affections. The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.

Meditation helps to bring the drama addict into the generally drama-free reality of the present moment. Reality reflects back to us that despite our out-of-control emotions and thoughts we are, in that very moment, clothed, fed, and sheltered and not at risk of war, famine or any other impending apocalypse.

When we sit with our present experience, whatever that may be, without judgment or commentary, and become aware on the level of sensation just what is going on emotionally, we may find that, maybe for the first time ever, we are actually capable of resting in great, natural peace. If we are able to stop our incessant, blind attraction to danger and chaos, even for a moment, we may experience, from the depths of our being, pure, unadulterated relief.

We may lurch back into old autopilot habits of over-dramatizing, but we have briefly experienced another way, which is not boring or grey after all, but deeply restful and nourishing. All we need to do is make a new habit, one of commitment, to going back to that place on a daily basis.

We may not feel like doing this. We may be tired, angry, distracted, hungry, lonely or stressed. But we don’t have to believe every emotion or thought that we have. As with NA/AA meetings, we just show up. As we sit, day in and day out, steadfast as the rising and the setting sun, we gradually develop discriminating wisdom which helps us to decide which emotions and thoughts are in our own best interest and which are not. Mastery of the mind entails rejecting those thoughts not in alignment with our values. We can also identify emotions and thoughts that help in strengthening our purpose.

Serenity is the opposite of melodrama, and the dualistic nature of our universe whispers to us that the kernel of the one lies dormant in the other. All we need to do is incubate serenity by carefully laying it under our meditation cushion before we sit and trusting that our minds will gradually incline towards peace.

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