insight

Stroke, meditation and insight

wildmind meditation newsMartin LeFevre, Costa Rican Times: “Thoughts That Can’t Be Spoken” is a fascinating piece about a writer’s experience of a stroke. Alberto Manguel describes what happened after “a blood clot in one of the arteries that feeds my brain had blocked for a few minutes the passage of oxygen.” The essay offers much unintended insight into the neurological basis of the meditative state.

During and after his stroke, the Manguel said that it was as if “thought had become demagnetized and was no longer capable of attracting the words supposed to define it.” Declaring that “thought forms itself in the mind by means …

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Cultivate only the path to peace

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The Buddha was a man on a mission, and very single-minded. He said over and over again that his only interest was in addressing suffering:

Both formerly and now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.

This word “dukkha” is often rendered as “suffering.” I have no real problem with that translation. It’s accurate. But many people have problems with the word “suffering.” As a friend and I were discussing just the other night, many people don’t recognize the suffering they experience as suffering, and so they don’t think that dukkha applies to them. Often people think of suffering as actual physical pain, or severe deprivation such as starvation, homelessness, or being in a war-zone. All those things are of course dukkha, but so are many others, some of which people might be reluctant to apply the label suffering to.

Often people don’t even see that they’re suffering; they’re blind to their pain. They so take it for granted that life is hard, or think that people and things around them are awkward and frustrating, and they don’t even give the difficulties they face a second thought.

The Buddha commented on this reluctance or blindness to dukkha:

“What others speak of as happiness,
That the noble ones say is suffering.”

We often think we’re OK, but actually we’re living at a sub-optimal level — far below our potential.

For example, any kind of craving is dukkha, whether or not we want to recognize this. Even “pleasant” cravings like longing for a tasty treat, or longing for a new electronic toy are forms of dukkha. Look underneath the excitement of the wanting, and there’s a void that we’re trying to fill. Beneath the wanting is a want.

Anger is dukkha, even when we enjoy getting angry. Frustration is dukkha. Irritability is dukkha. Resenting someone is dukkha. Worrying what someone thinks about you is dukkha. Hoping that the traffic light will stay on green is suffering. Wishing that the driver in front of you would go a little faster is dukkha.

We actually experience dukkha dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times a day. Dukkha is not an uncommon experience that only visits us on rare occasions. It’s woven throughout our experience and often goes unnoticed or unrecognized.

So some translators render dukkha as “unsatisfactoriness,” some as “stress,” some as “unease,” some as “anguish.” The root of the word is obscure, but it may come from dus-stha “unsteady, disquieted.” There’s no word that’s quite adequate. Personally, I find “suffering” to be fine; I just have a very broad understanding of what suffering is in my life.

So the Buddha taught about suffering. He taught about the ways in which we cause ourselves suffering, and the different ways in which we suffer, often without realizing it. And he taught about the cessation of suffering. He taught how to end suffering by attaining awakening.

But what are we left with when suffering has ceased? What is the opposite of suffering?

I suspect most people would think of “happiness” as the opposite of suffering, but “happiness” isn’t quite right. Happiness is not what Buddhist practice aims at. The goal of Buddhism, which is the spiritual awakening of bodhi, isn’t really happiness. I think of it more as “peace.” Think of the goal as the opposite of “unsteady” or “disquieted” — it’s steady, at peace, settled, quieted, calm, untroubled. Happiness may accompany this peace at some times, and not at others. It’s the peace that’s fundamental.

In the Dhammapada, the Dhamma is is said to be the path to peace:

Cultivate only the path to peace, Nibbana, as made known by the Sugata [Buddha].

And the Buddha is described as being supremely at peace:

Serene and inspiring serene confidence, calming, his senses at peace, his mind at peace, having attained the utmost tranquility and poise.

In our lives we’re often seeking happiness in some way or another. And a common assumption is that happiness comes from having pleasurable experiences. Buddhism points out, though, that there’s so much change and instability in the world and in our own beings that we can never guarantee ourselves a constant stream of pleasurable experiences, and so we can never find true happiness that way.

True happiness — or rather peace — comes not from having pleasant experiences, but from changing our relationship with our experience, whether it’s pleasurable or unpleasurable. It’s when we can completely accept pleasure and pain without responding either with craving or aversion that we find ourselves at peace. So this insight changes everything. Most of our pleasure seeking, most of our pursuit of happiness, is actually causing us more dukkha, because we’re aiming to keep at bay unpleasant experiences and hold onto pleasant ones. And both of these aims are impossible, fruitless, and frustrating — dukkha, in short.

Peace and joy come not from the experiences we have, but from how we relate to those experiences. Our experiences are inherently unsatisfactory (another meaning of dukkha), and we need to stop chasing after them or resisting them.

It’s only learning to accept impermanence, and developing the ability to bear with our experiences non-reactively, that will bring peace.

So we need to remind ourselves of this all the time, so that we can find peace. And we also need to bear in mind, as we’re interacting people or cultivating metta, karuna, mudita, or upekkha for others that they too are often trapped in cognitive distortions — seeking happiness but not knowing how to create it; trying to avoid suffering and yet creating suffering inadvertently. And in the upekkha bhavana we can look out into the world and be aware of beings striving, blindly, for happiness. And we can wish that beings (ourselves included) develop the clarity and wisdom to be able to create peace — genuine peace — the peace that comes from awakening.

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Acting with equanimity (Day 86)

100 Days of LovingkindnessI’ve always suspected that the Buddha had a hard time expressing himself, not because of any lack of ability of his part, but because the language that he had available to him was very limited. Actually all language is limited, but the Buddha was trying to express teachings that were very profound and subtle. He said he’d doubted whether it was possible to communicate the insights that he’d realized:

This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise.

Fortunately “he saw beings with little dust in their eyes” and decided it was worth trying.

And he was trying to express something subtle in quite an earthy language. To give you an example, there’s a word “gocara” that’s often translated as something like “sphere,” as in “the sphere of the Awakened One.” The word gocara is a compound term, with “go” meaning “cow” and “cara” meaning “faring” or “wandering.” So the “sphere of the Awakened One” is more literally “the Buddha’s cow-pasture.” It has a pleasant, earthy ring to it, even more so than when we similarly use the word “field,” as in “his field is nuclear physics.”

Anyway, our own language has its limitations too, and we’re also trying to understand in our language something that was said in another. So we’re dependent on scholars and translators and their work, and on tools like dictionaries, which were also created by scholars and translators. The problems in all this are particularly evident when we’re discussing something like equanimity. In discussing upekkha we’re really struggling to understand what the Buddha meant — and we should bear in mind that the Buddha was probably struggling in having to use the word upekkha to cover several different kinds of mental quality. I’ve already pointed out the dangers of misreading equanimity as “not caring.” But even interpretations that avoid the error of thinking that equanimity is a neutral and indifferent state can be wide of the mark.

What if upekkha is really love plus insight? Let’s take love to mean the desire to help beings be all they can be, so that they can maximize their experience of peace and joy. And let’s take insight to mean seeing deeply into the nature of the mind, so that we really understand, on a very profound level, how peace comes about through an appreciation of impermanence. And so equanimity becomes about helping beings to become awakened.

There’s an old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for a lifetime.” How about if we had sayings like “Be kind to someone and they’re at peace for a day; teach someone to be kind to themselves, and they can be at peace for a lifetime”? Or something like “Recognize that you have no permanent and separate self, and you can behave toward others in ways that bring them joy; help someone to see that they have no permanent and separate self, and they can create their own joy”?

I’m struggling with language too, but I hope you get my point.

I think upekkha (equanimity as a translation seems almost entirely to miss the point) is really about helping others to become awakened because of your compassion. Let’s remember that “upekkha” is from a root meaning “to closely watch over.” It’s not directly about “balance” or “even-mindedness” at all. Those qualities are present in it, because if we’ve found the deep peace that comes from recognizing impermanence then we’re at peace. But I believe that upekkha is actually about wanting to share our insight, and the peace that arises from it, with others. It’s thus a close parallel with mudita (joyful appreciation) which is about wanting to see others developing skillful qualities, so that they can experience the joy and peace that comes from them.

Now you might be thinking something like, “Wait a minute, I’m not enlightened. I don’t have any insight to share.” But what I said above is only an approximation of the practice. I believe that when we’re cultivating upekkha, we’re both seeking insight ourselves, and wanting to see it develop in others too. All of the brahmaviharas have this dual nature; for example in developing metta we’re wanting to develop love ourselves, but we’re also wishing that others be well and happy. And when are beings well and happy? It’s when they’re experiencing metta. So we’re wishing for others what we’re developing ourselves.

So in upekkha bhavana we’re exploring impermanence, and trying to come to terms with it in order to experience the profound letting go that brings peace, and out of our love and compassion for others we wish them also to come to terms with impermanence and to experience that same letting go into peace. We want to be enlightened; we want others to become enlightened. We want awakened qualities to manifest in the world.

And it’s partly through our speech that we’re going to be able to help others develop insight. Possibly it’s going to happen in teaching situations, or where we’re studying with others, but it could also take place in therapeutic situations on in friendships.

The Buddha, in talking about skillful communication, held helpful speech and speech that brings harmony to be the highest forms of communication. For example, here’s how the Buddha describes spiritually helpful speech: “He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal” (emphasis added). And rather than speak in divisive ways, we should speak in ways that create harmony: “Reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he is impassioned for peace (samagga), delights in peace, rejoices in peace, speaks things that create peace.”

I don’t want to suggest that it’s only speech through which we can put our upekkha into action, nor do I want to suggest that we should be continually pointing out to others that things are impermanent or that they have a mistaken view of their selves! There’s a right and a wrong time for everything. But I’d suggest just carrying around this view, as a practice, in the background of your mind, that you want to be awakened. And as you think about others, or see them, or interact with them, call to mind that you want them to be enlightened as well, so that they can experience the deep peace of awakening.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Upekkha as an insight practice (Day 85)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

One of the things I love is that when you spend some time hanging out with a practice, you often start to see it in new ways. This has happened for me with each of the four brahmavihara practices we’ve been exploring — lovingkindness, compassion, joyful appreciation, and also equanimity, which is what we’re currently focusing on. I see each of these practices differently after practicing them regularly and reflecting on them, but I’m also starting to see things about the brahmaviharas as a whole that I’d never noticed before.

I’m noticing a kind of progression, suggesting an underlying framework that crops up over and over again in the Buddha’s teachings. It’s not the first time I’ve noticed this progression, but I’m now seeing it in a new way.

By way of background, many of the Buddha’s overviews of the path can be seen as consisting of two synergistic activities, which it’s tempting to call “stages” although that terminology is a bit misleading, since it tends to assume that the first stage is “lower” and less important than the second. In a synergy, both factors are crucial, and it’s not possible to say that one is more important than the other because each depends on the other for its fulfillment. These two synergistic activities that crop up over and over again are different ways of doing what I call “unselfing” — that is, reducing the sense of separateness that causes us to suffer.

These synergistic activities are found, for example, in the categories of puñna and pañña, or merit and insight. “Merit” is where we “unself” by developing skillfulness. We change our emotional and cognitive habits so that we think, speak, and act more skillfully. We replace greed with contentment, letting go, and generosity. We replace ill will with love and compassion. We become less selfish and less self-oriented, and more in tune with other people. This aspect of practice is like knocking down weeds and planting flowers. Insight is where we uproot the very cause of greed and ill will, by closely examining our experience and realizing that because everything that constitutes “us” is constantly changing, we don’t have the kind of separate and unchanging self that can be defended by ill will or bolstered by greed. So this is a more radical form of unselfing, where we learn to see through the delusion of separate selfhood.

Puñña and pañña — together — help us to abandon selfishness and self-view.

And these two, puñña and pañña, are mutually supportive. We can’t develop insight until we’ve done substantial work on ourselves to reduce our negativity and to become more open and positive. So puñña supports pañña. But as we begin to develop more appreciation into the impermanent nature of our experience, and of our selves, we find that we naturally become more skillful. So pañña supports puñña.

And this pattern of synergy can be seen in the terms samatha (calming) and vipassana (clearly seeing), and in the formula of the three trainings (ti-sikkha), where ethics and meditation correspond to puñña, and wisdom to pañña. And this can be seen in many other teachings as well, where there’s often a pattern of skillful qualities giving rise to concentration, which allows us to make a breakthrough into insight, which is sometimes described as “seeing things as they really are” or simply as “equanimity” (but here talking about the equanimity of the awakened mind, and not as the brahmavihara, although the one can lead to the other).

The brahmaviharas follow the same pattern, but in a particularly interesting way.

Metta and karuna (lovingkindness and compassion) are where we wish that beings be happy and free from suffering. We recognize, though our ability to resonate (anukampa) with others, that all beings wish to be happy and don’t wish to suffer. We all share these deep drives. And when we really recognize the universality of these drives, we find it harder and harder to stand in the way of others’ happiness, or to cause them suffering. Just knowing this intellectually isn’t enough, of course. We have to train our ability to resonate, and we have to train our ability to be kind and compassionate. (And we also have to train to be less selfish, grasping, and antagonistic). So this is a puñña activity, where we’re changing our habits and becoming less selfish.

Then there’s mudita, joyful appreciation. Now this is often described as us feeling joyful when we see joy in others. And seen that way it’s a mirror image of compassion, which is what we feel when we see pain in others. But mudita is far more than being empathetically joyful. It’s appreciating the skillful in others and appreciating the joy and peace that comes from those skillful qualities. It’s recognizing the operation of karma — how our actions affect our happiness, for good or bad — and so it’s really an insight practice. But it’s an insight practice that focuses on the arising of puñña in others. Mudita is when we appreciate, rejoice in, and support the arising of the skillful in others, because we clearly see that these qualities lead to true peace, joy, happiness, and freedom from suffering.

Upekkha is of course an insight practice too. It’s an insight practice where we ourselves cultivate and experience a loving peace. We experience peace as we learn that painful experiences and pleasant experiences come and go. We experience peace as we recognize that selfish clinging and ill will can never bring happiness, and because we’ve recognized that letting go can. We experience peace as we recognize the limits of our own abilities, and so there’s no clinging to unattainable outcomes (“I must save all beings!”) and no despondency and aversion when we’re not able to help others (“Some of those idiots just keep on causing suffering for themselves!”) We experience peace as we recognize that we can do what we can do, but ultimately all beings are the owners of their own karma (actions); ultimately they are responsible for their own happiness. We can help others. We can empathize with them. We can point the way. But as the Dhammapada says, “You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way.” And to the extent that we ourselves have any skill in pointing toward awakening, we have to recognize that others may not be interested in following that direction.

But we’re also wishing this peace for others. Even if we haven’t developed much peace ourselves, we can still wish that others attain to peace. We can wish that they come to recognize impermanence, and that they come to see the arising and passing of experiences with balance and equanimity. We can wish that they learn to let go of the desire to change that which cannot be changed, and that they increasingly see letting go as the path to peace. So really, we’re supporting the development of insight in others.

So mudita, joyful apprecaition, is an insight practice in which we recognize the workings of karma in others, as they bring about peace and joy through the cultivation of skillful qualities. On the other hand upekkha, or “closely and lovingly watching over others” is an insight practice in which we recognize the workings of karma in others as they bring about peace and joy by recognizing and realizing impermanence.

Mudita and upekkha are not just things we feel, however. They are intentions that lead to actions. Mudita leads to our rejoicing in the good we see in others, and upekkha leads to us appreciating and supporting any insight we seen in others, so that we help them to let go whenever we can, of any grasping that causes them to suffer. Having unselfed ourselves, we help others to relax their own sense of self, so that they too can become unselfed. Tomorrow I’ll talk more about putting upekkha into practice in our lives.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Lovingkindness as a path to awakening (Day 25)

Stone carved with a mantra, which has been painted in red.

The Buddha is recorded as having said:

For one who mindfully develops
Boundless loving-kindness
Seeing the destruction of clinging,
The fetters are worn away.

If with an uncorrupted mind
He pervades just one being
With loving kindly thoughts,
He makes some merit thereby.

But a noble one produces
An abundance of merit
By having a compassionate mind
Towards all living beings.

The “fetters” are mental habits that hold us back from attaining enlightenment. Lovingkindness practice, the Buddha is saying, wears away these fetters. So lovingkindness practice helps us become enlightened.

The way I think of the Buddhist path of practice these days is that it’s all about “un-selfing.” Normally we are “selfing” all the time — “selfing” being a rendering of “ahamkara,” which literally means “I-making.” Every time we experience craving or aversion, we are creating, from an essentially undifferentiated mass of experience, a sense of a separate self. We have a mass of undifferentiated experience, and some of those experiences we have aversion towards, or try to push away. In the act of pushing, there is a sense that we are pushing them away from “us.” And so there’s a reinforcement of the sense of “I.” I don’t like this. I don’t want this. Similarly, with craving there is some experience that is clung to, held onto. And in the act of clinging or holding there is a reinforcement that there is this thing called “me” that is appropriating the experience. I like this. I want this.

All practice helps us to “un-self.” Lovingkindness “unselfs.” When we’re experiencing kindness we’re not capable of experiencing ill will or craving. Our ill will and craving, not being exercised, become weaker. “The fetters are worn away.”

Lovingkindness practice also helps us to do more “we-ing” (and I apologize for the infantile sound of that term, but I also hope it brings a smile). When we’re “we-ing” we’re not selfing. In lovingkindness practice we recognize that all beings are like ourselves. We all want to be happy; we all find happiness elusive. And knowing this to be true, we feel less inclined to obstruct others happiness, and want to assist others in finding happiness if we can. Our concerns move from being all “in here” (how can I be happy) and move “out there” (how can we, or they, be happy). We become kinder.

In the final stage of the practice, having a compassionate mind towards all living beings, there is an emphasis on spaciousness, as I’ve explained in the last two posts.

In the approach that the Buddha seems to have taught, we become aware of each of the directions, and we pervade each with lovingkindness. What I’ll tend to do in this stage of the practice is to become aware of the actual space around me. I’ll notice the the light, the space, and the sound. I’ll notice sounds in particular in a non-reactive way, simply allowing them to exist. I don’t try to hold onto sounds, nor do I try to push them away. This in itself is a form of unselfing, since craving and aversion are being dropped. And I’m aware that there are living beings in the space I’m aware of (both in the physical space I’m attending to and in the mental space of my mind, in the form of memories or imagination). And I’m wishing them well. The space I’m perceiving is pervaded with kindness, because my mind is pervaded with kindness.

But noticing the space and sound in particular contribute to a sense that my consciousness is no longer something that’s “inside” me, but is something that extends out into the world. I can almost feel my mind filling the space around me. This is not simply imagination. All experience happens in the mind. Whether an experience is a thought or the sound of a passing jet plane, the experience happens in the mind. We perceive the thought as being “in here” and the sound of a jet being “out there” only because of a more subtle kind of selfing that divides experiences into “self” and “other.” When we simply pay attention to so-called inner and so-called outer experiences at the same time, eventually we mind puts less and less effort into making this distinction. As we pay less attention to whether our experiences are “in here” or “out there” these two concepts cease to have so much (or sometimes any) meaning.

And so there are several kinds of unselfing going on. There’s the unselfing that consists of dropping the selfing activities of craving and aversion. There’s the unselfing of “we-ing” — of seeing other beings as having the same basis needs as ourselves and, with a mind of kindness, being prepared to help them find happiness. And there’s the unselfing of no longer considering ourselves to be “in here” while the world is “out there.” We allow there to be “a mass of undifferentiated experience” that we don’t divide into a self and an other. All thought of there being a self may be lost. At first this loss is temporary, but this can become a permanent state. At this point the fetters (or at least some of them) have been broken, and the experience of awakening has begun.

So lovingkindness is not a “basic” practice. It’s one that can take us all the way.

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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Transcendental Science Fiction and the magic of contrast

THE PRISON

‘..that quest for new and relevant cultural expressions of the Dharma is of the foremost importance if Buddhism is to have a major impact on the world.’
Subhuti, A Buddhist Manifesto.

I came to Buddhism through the catalyst of Speculative Fiction (SF), which includes, amongst others, the science fiction and fantasy genres.

At the root of Speculative Fiction I saw a spiritual urge; the desire for transcendence. In it I recognised what could almost be seen as a new spiritual movement.

I place the origins of Science Fiction in the nineteenth century with the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as does Brian Aldiss in his book Billion Year Spree. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Science Fiction arrived around the time Christianity was weakening in the face of Scientism. I think SF might be a new channel for our ‘spiritual’ urge; expressed and explored in new ways. And so I like to refer to Transcendental Science Fiction, or just Transcendental Fiction.

Many have cited films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars for awakening their spiritual lives. I wondered if SF could be a new ethnic religion out of which could spark the transcendental, though few science fiction authors would consider their writing to be at all religious.

SF seems often to be about finding something more to life, about exploring the beyond, or exploring the unknown. Buddhism also has those concerns. Though I’m certainly not equating Buddhism and SF, I think I can show that they sometimes share a drive towards liberation from unsatisfactoriness and this at least can be a starting point for something.

I also discovered that both Buddhism and SF employ the use of contrast to communicate something higher. Early in my quest I found that contrast — particularly of the real and the unreal — always seemed to be at the heart of SF. I then discovered the Perfection of Wisdom literature and found that this was about contrast too; in it was a paradox which arose from the reconciling of the mundane and the transcendental. This felt similar to the use of contrast I had seen in SF.

I also found that Buddhist sutra and SF both make use of layered contrast as well as paradox; this encourages our mind to ascend into higher levels of perception and insight. One theme in Buddhist sutras is the ideal of the Bodhisattva: a being who strives for enlightenment in order to benefit all beings. But in the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines Subhuti says ‘I see no Bodhisattva, and no Perfect Wisdom; whom is there to teach with what Perfect Wisdom?’ We are left with a paradox.

In the Science Fiction story Star Maker Olaf Stapleton shows us the evolution of communal mind as individuals, then whole worlds, join telepathically. The ‘minds’ of whole galaxies eventually join to form one cosmic mind; the perfected awakened cosmos itself, which is finally able to reach out to and find the elusive star maker, the creator of all things, and yet is rejected by him. This uses layered contrast, providing us with successive levels which are built upon each other, in order to reach an otherwise impossible standpoint.

Paradox in SF is like a koan, and usually comes in the form of a co-existence of the real with the unreal. For example in the Planet of the Apes when the whole film builds up to a final climax as this world of talking apes, which we had perceived to be unreal, is shown to be our own world. This challenges the boundaries of our perception of reality; which is already faulty, because we are still unenlightened beings, and so this can be a liberating experience.

In fact all our mundane perception is only made possible through contrast – for example, you can’t have a ‘large’ without having a ‘small’. These contrasts, used in creating art and literature, are also the foundation of our unenlightened perception. It is because of this that all reconciliation of dichotomies may lead us to insight into the truths of Buddhism; we live in a house of mirrors with no inherent nature. It is because of this that contrast and paradox in any literature might lead us to insight into the illusory nature of our world.

I tend to use the term “transcendental” in two senses; more generally as transcending any false limiting of self; for example, being liberated from thinking we are the centre of the universe, or from the view that we could never achieve anything important. But more specifically I use it as the complete seeing through of the illusory view of our world; seeing through the separation into selves and bifurcation of subject and object. These two levels of transcendence are sometimes described as insight with a small i and Insight with a big I. And this term also distinguishes it from Mundane Science Fiction, which limits itself to that which is encompassed purely by the rational (or scientific).

My teacher, Urgyen Sangarakshita, was I believe the first to coin the term “Transcendental Science Fiction,” and it’s he to whom I dedicate my first attempt. I have recently published this through Inklestudios. It’s called The Prison, (click here for a UK version), and it’s now available on Amazon Kindle. You could try it and see if you think I’ve been successful.

The full article on Transcendental Science Fiction is available as a Kindle download here in the US, or here for a UK Kindle version, and free on my blog here. I also have a Facebook group dedicated to Transcendental Fiction.

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The first reminder: My precious birth

Newborn baby

I hope it is not too late to realize that joyful is my precious birth. If we are deep in the disease of an addiction it is impossible to realize and to take advantage of our precious birth. When we are sober, clean and free from anything that obsesses or controls the mind we have emotional and spiritual health. Only then can we begin to appreciate our precious birth.

Every human that is born has a precious birth. The difference is that some of us have the perfect conditions to realize our potential while others are born into conditions where their potential can be hindered by external factors they had no control over, like sickness, diseases, war, famine and natural disasters. Those of us living in countries without these factors can also hinder our potential by the internal factors created by the mind; greed, hatred and delusion.

The Four Reminders

I have gratitude right now in this moment because I have my physical health, energy, and more than enough food to eat. What do I have to complain about? I currently live in country that is free of war on its own territory. I can walk outside my house and not fear I may walk on a land mine. I have my freedom as a woman, and yet I still complain. If I get sick, I can go to a doctor and not worry about the cost, and know that I will be treated with decent care. Yet I still complain. How fortunate I am. And If I don’t realize this good fortune I will be wasting my life. Wasting my precious birth. I will be at risk of turning to alcohol, food, or any other false comforter to fill the void in my life.

Knowing all of this, how should I live my life? I choose to live each moment as if it were the last. ‘I do that ‘ an addict may well say. However most addicts live life as if there is no tomorrow. The addict lives life chasing yesterdays experiences and tomorrows desires. The addict lives in complete denial of seeing things as they really are. Not just the addict, but most people live their life like this. Our minds are so full of delusions, stories we tell our selves, resentments and craving that it is impossible to see things as they really are.

If I could live my life as if every moment was the first and the last my life would be different. How? I don’t know. But I do know if my mind was not attached to the past, or the future it would be different. Free of mental turmoil, without the craving for something to dull my feelings.

If tomorrow I get sick or, tomorrow I get knocked off my bicycle and lose a limb. I know that if I hold onto the past of when I was well, and had all my limbs, I will suffer even more. If I was able to be in the moment of my life, I would be able to see my precious birth despite my physical disability. I shudder at the thought of this, and I know that there are people in the world who can live with that acceptance and awareness. Not letting a physical disability take away their precious birth.

Detox Your Heart, Vimalasara

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I’ve had two cancer scares. The first was when I was 24. I remember thinking “I have to change my life”. It worked, the cancerous cells disappeared. But I didn’t change my life. I was most definitely on the path that led to more suffering. I numbed everything out with work, social life and denial. Before my next cancer scare, I was attacked. It took being almost strangled to death at age 27 for me to change my life. It was my wake up call. I wasn’t meant to die. I got away, alive. So what was I going to do with my precious birth?

Exactly this. I told myself this was not going to be another thing to pull me down. It never has. I have never been a victim of this incident. Sometimes it’s as if it never happened. I didn’t hold on to it. I let it go, and moved into the next moment. Yes it had an impact, that lasted a few months, in dreams. But the only pain that took time to go was the physical side effect in my neck.  Even that subsided. I turned to Buddhism soon after and woke up to my precious birth.

My second cancer scare was at 35. I remember walking out of the clinic and thinking I’ve had a good life, it is okay to die. I’ve lived 35 long years, yes it would be good to live some more, but you could hardly say poor thing she died so young. As soon as we are born we are old enough to die.

I could never have thought so positively if it wasn’t for my Buddhist training. It so happened my doctor was wrong. It wasn’t cancerous cysts, just fibroids.  And so I am still here. Still trying to live this precious life ethically with mindfulness and wisdom. Rather than live it mindlessly by numbing out in front of the tv, on the computer, eating food, alcohol, substance abuse, depression or anger. Life is too short for that, which is why our birth is so precious.

We have the mental factors to see things as they really are. If we were to nurture our faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom we would be moving towards the good, have awareness, focused concentration and intelligent understanding.

The five hindrances of craving, aversion, restlessness, sloth and torpor and doubt would no longer obscure the mind. We would have made use of our precious birth.

As I write this month’s blog I can’t but help think about the tragedy in America. It is so sad. A precious life wasted, many precious lives lost. What happened to that poor kid James Holmes for him to be caught up in a delusion and use his intellect to massacre innocent people? Why did he waste his precious birth?

We live in a world today where our children are indoctrinated by greed, hatred and delusion. Just watch the video games that are marketed to youth. Kids are rewarded, given points for killing someone. Young people I have worked with, have told me that: ‘video games are screwing up some of their friends’.

We have to wake up to reality. We are nurturing a generation of young people who have different values than their parents. Video games are just one example where we are teaching young people about violence uncritically.

We have to take responsibility. It’s not just about our birth. It is about the precious birth of generations to come. In living our lives wisely we will help those born after us to realize their full potential.

How are you making the most of your precious birth?

Next month a reflection on the first reminder.

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Awakening to our true nature

Spiritual practice is about coming back, over and over again, to love and mindfulness, making those our home.

I subscribe to the newsletters of Rick Hanson, who contributes articles to Wildmind and who is a well-known author and neuropsychologist. He’s a very stimulating man! Today’s newsletter was an interesting one, and it prompted some thinking on my part.

He opens by asking a much-pondered question about human nature: “Deep down, are we basically good or bad?” From a neurological point of view, he comes down firmly on the side of good.

His reasoning is this:

When the body is not disturbed by hunger, thirst, pain, or illness, and when the mind is not disturbed by threat, frustration, or rejection, then most people settle into their resting state, a sustainable equilibrium in which the body refuels and repairs itself and the mind feels peaceful, happy, and loving.

Basically, he’s talking about the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for “fight, flee, or freeze” responses to potential danger) and the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the “rest and digest” response that brings us back to balance when danger is past). Rick calls this “rest and digest” state the Responsive mode, and the “flight, flight, or freeze” state the Reactive mode.

Rick points out that the Responsive mode is our default state — a fundamental “strange attractor” in our brain states. And therefore, he says, it’s this relaxed and loving state that’s your true nature: “Your deepest nature is peace not hatred, happiness not greed, love not heartache, and wisdom not confusion.”

I don’t have any disagreement with this at all. What Rick is trying to do, I think, is to align neuroscience with certain Buddhist views of Buddha Nature which suggest that the mind is inherently pure and compassionate. Buddha Nature can be a useful way to see things as long as it’s not taken too seriously.

The thought I had, though, was that relaxation and rest, and even happiness and love, are not enough. It’s great to be free from stress — for a while. But then what happens if we stay relaxed? We start to seek out sources of excitement. We can’t handle too much peace! I don’t think that the resting state is actually a “sustainable equilibrium,” because rest and being “peaceful, happy, and loving” are not in themselves deeply satisfying enough for us. We always want something more. And the resting state is fragile because it’s always going to be challenged by events from our lives (a crazy day at the office, a child with a tantrum).

The untrained mind in Responsive mode can never be loving enough, or peaceful enough to avoid being tipped over into reactivity. So we need to deepen our capacity for responsiveness. We need to train the mind, and not simply relax. I’m not disagreeing with Rick or criticizing him, incidentally, — just drawing out some of the implications of his presentation; Rick suggests a number of ways in his newsletter of how we can “tip forward into our deepest nature.”

Cultivating attentiveness, or mindfulness, changes the base state of our Responsive mode so that it’s less prone to reactivity. With mindfulness we notice quicker when the mind is starting to slip into reactivity. And this allows us to act. In a mindful state we learn to regulate the brain’s “fight or flight” module, the amygdala. In fact, with repeated training the amygdala — the part of the brain largely responsible for the Reactive mode — gets smaller, the parts of the brain responsible for regulating the amygdala get larger, and the number of connections from one to the other (allowing for this regulation) increase.

Deepening our lovingkindness by training in metta — as Buddhism calls the loving response that wants others to be happy — also helps us to go more deeply into Rick’s Responsive mode. Lovingkindness allows us to calm down the amygdala faster. The amygdala’s task is to scan our environment, looking for danger, and to alert us (via a flood of visceral feelings) when it’s detected a potential threat. Lovingkindness allows us to see people as beings who want to be happy rather than as beings who want to hurt us (and very few people want to hurt us). Rather than seeing someone’s anger, say, as a threat to our peace of mind, we refocus on their wellbeing; how can I help this person be happier? and we develop more lovingkindness and compassion for ourselves, as well. We take care of ourselves through compassion rather than through fear and anger.

These two practices, of mindfulness and lovingkindness, don’t fix thing instantly. But they help us bring ourselves back into the Responsive mode over and over again. And we do have to keep coming back, because our reactions to life’s events will keep propelling us into Reactive mode. That’s what training’s about; coming back over and over again to our purpose or living from a deeper level of fulfillment.

Lastly, a deep appreciation of change helps us to feel less threatened so that we can put the amygdala (perhaps, if this is what Awakening is really like) permanently offline, so that the Responsive mode becomes not just our default mode, but where we live, permanently.

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How “letting go” helps us get things done

Woman in a colorful dress, caught in mid-jump, looking like she's hovering restfully over the ocean

Joe, a student in my online class, was worried that meditation would hurt his career. He works in a very competitive business where everyone is single-mindedly pushing and driving hard all the time. The whole idea of “letting go” seemed absurd in that context. But at the same time his stress and anxiety levels were sky high. He knew this wasn’t a sustainable way to live.

Yes it’s true that in meditation, we’re told to drop everything and let go. But that doesn’t mean becoming passive and ineffectual. There’s more to this instruction than meets the eye.

There’s an image that comes to mind for me to illustrate what letting go is like. Imagine we’re kayaking down a river. One way we could do it is to paddle like hell, trying to force our way around, fighting the currents, insisting that the kayak go exactly where I want it to go. And doing it how I want to do it.

Or, we could survey the terrain and current before jumping in. Then we ride the current and let it take us most of the way to where we want to go. We steer to make sure we don’t get dashed against rocks or end up heading down the wrong side of the river. We could also use a calmer bend in the river to stop and look ahead to plan our next stretch. We can steer our course without using nearly as much effort this way, adjusting our path as we go along.

Life can be the same way. We don’t have make all the effort ourselves to make things happen from beginning to end. If we expand our view beyond our self-absorbed need to reach our goal, there’s a whole universe of structures and currents out there that can help us.

See also:

At work for example, if we find people who have common goals and interests as we do, our combined energies can often accomplish more than the sum of us individually could. Involving our boss in our plans sometimes results in him clearing a path in front of us, getting us resources, additional help, budgets, etc. Tagging onto existing workflows and procedures means we don’t have to create everything ourselves.

Letting go can help us in our inner world, too. Have you noticed how creative ideas often pop up when you’re taking a shower or walking the dog? In other words, when you’re not really trying? Recent neuroscientific research suggests that making less effort is what helps. When we become effortful in problem solving, it generally means we’re pushing our way through our old, familiar ways of doing things. And often, those are exactly the ways that haven’t worked, but we keep pounding at them anyway. When we keep repeating the same thing over and over, we become blind to other possibilities. So to be “not effortful” means to inhibit the thoughts that don’t work in order to leave room for something else to emerge.

Not being effortful also means your mind is quieter and more conducive to new ideas. A creative thought is one that brings up a long-forgotten memory or combines some of them in a new way. Neurologically speaking, they involve connections between far fewer neurons than your front-of-mind thoughts. So the signals they emit are much weaker, and generally get drowned out by your much louder, effortful thoughts. To give those quieter thoughts a fighting chance to be noticed, it helps to have a quiet mind. One that has “let go” of jangly discursive thinking.

So letting go doesn’t mean letting go of everything — just the stuff that gets in our way. In this context, it means letting go of our obsessive focus on results, and our inflexible views of how to get there. It doesn’t mean dropping all thoughts about the future, but finding a more open and flexible relationship with them.

The larger perspective of the teaching on “letting go” is an acknowledgment that I am a part of a highly interconnected world. Every time I get hyper-focused on my own little view of the world, I am being blind to the way things really are. To think that I can do things exclusively my way is to be foolish and ignorant. And it’s bound to get me into trouble, or at least cause me a lot of stress.

But at the same time, I’m not a helpless victim either. I am the agent of my own free will, and can use it to steer my path through life. With mindfulness, we can skillfully navigate our way through all these forces to get to a better outcome. And it’s not just me that benefits — because everything I do ultimately benefits everyone.

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Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh

Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh

Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh is a prolific writer, with over seventy books to his name. ‘Your True Home’ is his latest: a compilation of 365 short teachings, one on each page.

The format means we can take the book’s subtitle ‘everyday wisdom’ literally, and visit the book daily for a nugget of this much-loved Buddhist teacher’s lore.

And nuggets they are, never taking up more than half a page in a book which has a short, chubby format to begin with (though too heavy to be pocket size – unless you have very big pockets).

Title: Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh
Author: Melvin McLeod (editor)
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-926-1
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

The teachings fall into two broad categories: instructions and insights.

Day 144, for example, gives us a mindful breathing practice culminating in the lines, ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I smile to my whole body.’

There’s an emphasis on positivity in Thich Nhat Hanh’s instructions. Our natural state is joy, he suggests, and we’d save ourselves a lot of trouble if we could appreciate that.

That emphasis isn’t there as strongly in his insight teachings. For example, on day 173: ‘When conditions are sufficient, something manifests. That is what we call a ‘formation’. The flower is a formation, and so are the clouds and the sun. I am a formation, and you are a formation.’

Similarly, on Day 62, he compares life to a kaleidoscope of changing patterns. ‘Should we cry every time one of these manifestations comes to an end?’

Core Buddhist tenets are being emphasised here: that life is contained in the present moment, and that the material world is constantly changing and unstable.

These truths may strike the reader as stark, presented as they are without back-up explanation. It makes the book an interesting mixture of comfort and challenge. Perhaps this reflects the two main practices within Buddhist meditation, Samatha (calming) and Vipassana (insight).

Editor Melvin McLeod is at pains to point out that the insight teachings are not ‘mere aphorisms to cheer us up or inspire us (though they do both). They are transformative insights and instructions, and we need to let them seep below the surface level of our intellect into our heart and guts, where wisdom gestates and real change happens.’

That would obviously be a fantastic outcome, but I’m not sure that reading this book on its own is enough to make it happen.

Having said that, who knows? Even if this is the only Buddhist book you ever read, bite-sized wisdom is a lot better that no wisdom at all. And even if we do take the teachings as aphorisms, at least they are thought-provoking ones.

Thich Nhat Hanh is sometimes criticised for endlessly presenting old teachings in new formats (and it’s possible to see this latest offering in that light, too).

But different formats undeniably make Buddhist teachings available and acceptable for the first time to a wider variety of people. Furthermore, re-presenting old ideas in new contexts can also be very powerful for those who are already familiar with them.

And so it is with ‘Your true home.’ While the meditation suggestions calm and focus us, the insight pages exert a ‘drip-drip’ effect. One day next year or in years to come (unlike a calendar, the pages are not dated, just tactfully numbered), we may read the right words at the right time and suddenly and unexpectedly recognize the living truth they are pointing to.

In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘When conditions are sufficient, something manifests.’ Putting the word out there in different ways is one method of helping establish them.

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