Category Archives: Patience

Blu-Tack is Teaching Us

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(Bend me, shape me, any way you want me.)

You may not have thought of it before, but Blu-Tack can teach us a lot about the practice of meditation. For those of you on foreign shores who might be unaware of this cornerstone of British office stationary, Blu-Tack is a – you guessed it – blue putty-like substance that can be rolled, stretched and pulled apart and is used to stick pieces of paper and the like onto walls, notice boards and other flat surfaces. People even use it to make figurines.

But the thing is, when you first take your piece of Blu-Tack it is distinctly un-sticky: it’s hard, cold and certainly not tacky. And so a little office workers’ ritual is required. You place a small piece of it between the palms of your hands, and then rub them back and forth and round and round, gently rolling and warming the baby-blue putty incubating within. After about fifteen seconds the previously intractable lump will have transformed into a supple, sticky, stretchy ball. The piece of Blu-Tack has now become malleable and is ready for action.

The process of meditation is remarkably similar.  Often we find that when we first sit down to focus on our breathing (or whatever our primary meditation object is) our mind is not yet ready. It’s like the cold Blu-Tack:  unyielding and difficult to mold into a pleasing shape. In short, you want to concentrate your mind, but your mind does not want to be concentrated. You want your mind to hold to the breath, but the mind is simply not willing to be held in place.

So what can we do? Think of the Blu-Tack: when it was in its unsticky state all that was required was a soft, warm embrace. Well that’s precisely what our minds need. So we gently take hold of our mind and give it a little roll between the soft warm hands of metta, of loving-kindness. Metta is the ultimate tool for subduing the recalcitrant mind and preparing it for meditation.

As the Buddha said, when metta is developed: “One’s mind concentrates easily.” (AN 11.16)

PUFF the Magic Metta

There are many ways to practice metta. Cultivating this sublime state is a particularly personal thing and so requires experimentation. I have found, as have many others, the PUFF method very powerful.

With this technique we use four words to develop loving-kindness towards ourselves and others. As we repeat the words we find our hearts and minds gradually relaxing as metta establishes itself within us. After five or ten (or more) minutes of this our minds should be warm, supple and able to focus on the breath with little persuasion, just like a nicely massaged lump of warm Blu-Tack. Lovely.

First of all take up your meditation posture. Relax both body and mind and let all things be. Then recite these words to yourself:

1. Patience, Patience.

2. Understanding, Understanding,

3. Forgiveness, Forgiveness.

4. Friendliness, Friendliness.

We say each word deliberately, slowly, and with care. And we say each word twice. To help us remember these words, if we take the first letter from each word and put them all together we get the word PUFF. Once we have reached ‘Friendliness’ we then proceed to repeat the words in reverse order until we get back to ‘Patience’. And then we begin again.

If you wish, as you repeat these words, you can picture yourself just as you are now: not how you’d like to be, but as you are at this very moment, warts, ill-will and all. Hold yourself in the warm, caring attitude of loving-kindness. Just keep on patiently repeating the words over and over, gradually allowing the qualities you are invoking to permeate your body and mind.

It shouldn’t take long before your mind is nicely warmed. If not much appears to have changed, don’t worry: some lumps of Blue-Tac are tougher than others! However, once you are ready, bring the breath to the forefront of your attention and continue to be mindful of that instead. You can even combine the two practices by repeating the words in unison with the breath. Hopefully your mind will now stick to the breath like a freshly rolled ball of Blu-Tack to the wall.

Of course, metta can and should be developed wherever possible: on the bus, while waiting at the doctors’ surgery, while laying in bed after a bad day.

And always remember: whenever you are feeling rotten, just go outside for a quick PUFF!

 

Six Ways to Improve Mindfulness – Part 4

5. SLOW

When… we… slow… down… it… is… very… easy… to… be… mindful.

Every… movement… is… distinct.

Every… movement… makes… an… impression.

Every… movement… is… remembered.

See? By taking our time reading those sentences we allowed each word to make an impression. Each word was distinct and each word was more easily remembered.

Slow-motion mindfulness exercises are a convenient yet exceptionally powerful way to hone our awareness. They are easy to do, they can be done at any time (though ideally not when crossing a busy road…), and their effects can be felt for a long time afterwards.

Remember

Let’s get back to that word remember. The term ‘mindfulness’ is, in this unsatisfactory realm, generally regarded as the most satisfactory translation of the Pali term ‘sati‘. But much is lost in translation and so to gain a more comprehensive understanding of this little word we need to look at its other connotations. Sati is closely linked to memory and so as well as ‘mindfulness’ it can be rendered as ‘to recall’, ‘to recollect’, ‘to remember’. When we are mindful we are thus continually recollecting or remembering a particular object in the present moment.

Take, for instance, Anapana-sati: it means mindfulness or recollection of the in-and-out breath; or Marananussati: mindfulness or recollection of death; and Kaya-gata-sati: mindfulness or recollection of the body. To be mindful of something is to hold it in mind, to be continually recollecting it, to be continually remembering it. To be mindful of the body is, in part, to be continually remembering what we are doing as we are doing it. That’s where moving slowly comes in.

We can’t move slowly without being aware. This is because it takes a deliberate effort in order to slow down. To deliberately slow down requires mindfulness. If you try this exercise you will notice that when your mindfulness slips you speed up and shift into auto-pilot: ‘Ooops! I speeded up. I must have lost my mindfulness.’

So how slowly should we move? Well, even moving a fraction slower than normal demands mindfulness and will therefore benefit us. If this is all you can manage then do it. However, for the best results we should move very slowly indeed – as if we were a frail old person of a hundred and ten years. Not only will this allow us to concentrate precisely on each movement, but we will come to be aware of a little-noticed but fundamental aspect of our lives: the intentions that precede our actions. See if you can catch them.

Theravada and The Art of Making Tea

The beauty of the slow-motion method is that it transforms even the most mundane and bog-standard task into a powerful mindfulness practice. Washing up, folding the tea-towels, tidying your room and re-stacking the bookshelves are all perfect candidates.

But let’s now take that most sacred of events – making a cup of tea, as an example. During your tea-break at work/university/home determine to take your time while making the special brew. Break the tea-making process up into manageable chunks of mindfulness by slowing down each movement – even the most insignificant movement. Especially the most insignificant movement! (There’s no such thing as an insignificant movement in this practice.) Put down your thoughts and moods and concentrate totally on the act of making a cup of tea:

Slowly and deliberately lift the kettle.

Slowly move it towards the cup.

Slowly tilt it and pour the water in.

Slowly tilt it back.

Slowly return it to the base.

Slowly move your hand to the spoon.

Slowly open your fingers.

Slowly grasp the spoon.

And so on.

If you break any activity down like this then there is a much greater chance of you recollecting and remembering what you are doing as you are doing it. In other words, of being mindful.

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Next up we have ORIENTATE, where we pay attention to each of the external sense-doors in turn to see exactly what is happening there.

 

Six Ways to Improve Mindfulness – Part 1

It’s flashing red! The car’s fuel gauge, that is. There’s only one thing to do when we see this warning and that’s to start looking for a petrol station. To ignore it and carry on would of course be very stupid.

Our mindfulness also has a gauge, and we need to learn how to read it. If we sense that thoughts and emotions are taking over, that we are losing perspective, and that problems are beginning to overwhelm us, then it’s clear that our mindfulness levels are getting low.

So it’s crucial that we become skilled at topping it up when a suitable opportunity arises. It may not take many minutes to do this – even thirty seconds of concentrated mindfulness amidst an hour of chaos will bring relief and revitalised awareness.

Short spells of deep mindfulness punctuating our day will also have a cumulative effect: at the end it, we will find that the day’s events have rolled off us as if they were water drops that have fallen from a lotus leaf.

1. QUIET

When I was a lay-man, shortly before I came to live at the monastery, I had this little exercise that worked wonders for my mindfulness. Firstly, I would take all of the drinking glasses out of the dishwasher and place them on the work-surface beneath the cupboard. Then, I would try to put each of those glasses away without making a sound.

As you can imagine, it made me exceptionally mindful. If I was careless, if my mind wandered off on some trail of thought, the glasses would tell me – ‘CLINK!’ – and I’d be brought right back into the moment.

You could say that the glasses functioned like the rumbling strips between the lanes on the motorway and the hard-shoulder – if you doze off and veer to the left you’re suddenly awoken by gudukgudukgudukguduk as you cross the strip. Then you promptly straighten back up.

Trying to be silent forces you to concentrate on every moment. Every action, even down to the most insignificant of movements, must be precise and executed with great mindfulness. Afterwards, even though you move with normal levels of speed and noise, you will find you are naturally much more mindful.

2. STOP

Yes, it’s as simple as that: just stop. Put down your pen, take your hand off the mouse, cease chopping the carrots, turn off the lawnmower, and just stop. Then, put down everything you’ve been carrying in your mind. Let it all fall away and focus entirely on the stillness of your body. After one or two minutes, or however much time allows, make a deliberate and fully conscious decision to carry on with what you were doing as mindfully as possible.

If you are anything like most people, however, you will probably find that just stopping is not as easy as it sounds.

Up until the moment of stopping we are a passenger on that great locomotion of desire. And until we stop it’s been whooshing along unhindered. So what happens when we do stop? It wants to keep going. You will want to grab the pen, the mouse, the knife, the lawnmower – you may even find your hand flies out without warning! But try to be still. Even the fastest train will come to a halt if you stop adding fuel. Our desire is the same. So just stop, put everything down, and allow it to come to a halt.

Of course, desire may not be the only thing in the driving seat – it may be aversion, frustration, impatience or even fear – and all of these will similarly want to keep going. But it is important that we let go of these too, and focus on simply remaining still.

Once the desire, aversion, etc. have slowed down, and the thoughts that were running rings around our mind have settled, we begin to open to the experience of just stopping. A still body and mind will quickly pay dividends: we will feel light, refreshed and focussed. The more deeply we can stop, that is – the less mental movement we can experience, the more powerful these results will be. Then, when it’s time to return to what we were doing, we can confidently pick up the pen, the mouse, the knife, the mower, and carry on with mindfulness revitalised.

 

New Moon Day (+1): Precept Power!

An effective Buddhist practice is a daily Buddhist practice. Pulling out the dusty zafu once a year might give you some fleeting respite, but it’ll do little more than that. And plunging head-first into an intensive retreat every six-months might take you to heaven for a few days, but if you’re back to partying and alcopops the day after you probably shouldn’t have bothered.

It’s easy to fall into extremes: to neglect meditation and party like Keith Richards for ninety-nine percent of the time, and then go at it like a Himalayan sage for the rest. But what really counts when travelling this path is a commitment to a steady, consistent and methodical daily practice.

Formal meditation must, of course, be central to this. One or two thirty minute sittings each day, for example, will keep you gliding along nicely. If, for whatever reason, you find this is too much sometimes, then do it for five minutes… three… one… but certainly not none! If we meditate consistently we will soon reach a point where we experience withdrawal symptoms when we don’t meditate: the mind has become accustomed to being fed – when we stop, it gets hungry!

Then there’s the cultivation of mindfulness, and, in particular, mindfulness of the body. Maintaining awareness of the body provides a refuge for the mind. It grounds us, makes us less impulsive, and, crucially, enables us to quite easily step back from and observe our feelings, thoughts and mental states. To keep our mindfulness battery charged we can pepper our day with brief spells of slow-motion mindfulness exercises, for instance while making a cup of tea or folding the towels, where we closely follow every stretch, bend and turn with a precise and concentrated awareness.

To direct and inspire our efforts to cultivate our mind we turn to the words of the Buddha and those of realised (or soon to be realised) teachers – noble beings who have crossed over to the far shore and are beckoning us to join them. Reading and listening to Dhamma Talks probably won’t be something we do every day, but still we shouldn’t neglect them.

Daily attention to meditation, mindfulness and sprinklings of instruction are thus key elements of a successful practice. But at the heart of it must lie something else, something which on the surface seems quite mundane and in some cranky people’s eyes spiritually stifling, but which is actually an essential tool in our quest to understand the true nature of things and be free from suffering. That something is the observance of the moral precepts.

Harmony

Keeping the precepts brings harmony: harmony within and harmony without. Refraining from harmful actions frees us from remorse and worry – hence the harmony within; and nurtures human relationships based on respect, confidence and trust – hence the harmony without. Having as the basis of our practice this lush and fertile soil of harmony, our development of concentration, mindfulness and insight is able to flourish.

The Buddha, referring to the bhikkhu and his maintenance of the numerous moral precepts found in the Vinaya, said he experiences a blameless joy that comes from living a life ‘as pure as a polished shell’. It is a joy that arises, not from anything having been done, but from the simple fact that something has not been done – that is: harm.

It’s funny to think of the lengths that people go to in order to experience elation and joy: roller-coasters, sky-diving, horror movies, snorting cocaine… when all they need to do is purify their virtue. Try to tell them this, however, and they’ll probably burst out laughing. What they don’t understand is that their actions follow them everywhere, and that the oppressive shadow of their harmful words and deeds will be cast over every attempt they make to experience happiness. If we live a life of moral purity there will be no shadow. We can lie in bed at night and experience that pure joy welling up in our heart as we reflect: ‘I have done no harm today!’

But this harmony is not limited to our own minds: it permeates our relationships with others. Do we feel secure and comfortable when in the presence of a killer? a thief? an adulterer? a liar? a drunk? Or do we feel our personal safety threatened? On the other hand, when we are in the company of a virtuous person, how do we feel then? safe? secure? at ease? As human beings we have this kind of moral scent which others intuitively pick up on. If someone stinks we want to get away; if they smell sweet, we’d like to stay. To keep the precepts is thus to give the gift of social harmony: the harmony that comes from people feeling secure in the presence of one another.

Just for a moment imagine a world where everybody kept the five precepts. What a heavenly place it would be! But, alas, on our little scruffy patch of the universe very few people do. Even society’s role models and leaders: politicians, sportsmen and women, writers, actors, pop-stars and so on, are largely beacons of moral decadence. So if they’re at it, what about the rest of the population? The world is in a pitiful state because it’s bereft of virtue.

To bring the five precepts into your heart and let them guide you through each moment of your life is a powerful means to cultivate this sorely needed harmony – both within and without.

But the benefits that arise through keeping the precepts don’t stop here; the harmony and joy, though delicious, are merely the first fruits. As a direct result of holding fast to the precepts through the hum-drum of day to day existence we find the liberating qualities of mindfulness, concentration and insight riding in their wake.

The Precepts and Meditation

When we close our eyes to meditate we look directly at our mind. Consequently, we become very aware of how it is coloured by the moral ‘tones’ of our actions, and, more importantly, how those tones dictate how we feel. Generally speaking, people are blind to how their thoughts, words and deeds affect their minds; ceaselessly chasing pleasure and fleeing pain they never stop to look. But the honest meditator is unable to hide. He or she witnesses how each action deposits an impression in the mental stream, and, depending on whether the action was harmful of not, how it produces suffering or happiness.

The impressions left by unskilful actions are like little monkeys on our shoulders. As soon we stop to meditate they start causing trouble. ‘La la la la laaa! I’m not going to let you meditate! I’m not going to let you meditate!’, they sing, while jumping up and down, tugging our ear lobes and pulling our hair (if we have any). But if our actions have been pure then there won’t be any disturbance. The monkeys will remain fast asleep while we close our eyes and effortlessly let go of a past that is not regretted, and a future that is not feared.

The mind fortified by virtue is a mind that can let go of past and future at will and thus become concentrated.

The Precepts and Mindfulness

When we keep the precepts we must be vigilant. We must be continually observing ourselves. They bring us right into the present moment as we keep guard over what we say and do to ensure that they are not broken.

As monks, living by hundreds of precepts, we are naturally made to be mindful of even the most seemingly insignificant of actions: we can’t lick our lips when we eat (try that with a jam doughnut!), we must wear our robes in a particular way, we mustn’t twiddle our thumbs in public, we mustn’t gaze at our reflection in the mirror… To somebody who doesn’t understand Dhamma practice these rules seem a tad ridiculous; but to one who actually trains with them their value proves to be inestimable: they make you so very aware. And not only aware of what you are doing, but, more importantly, of your intentions that are bubbling beneath the surface. The precepts reveal all.

The Precepts and Insight

It is this restraint, concentration and all-encompassing awareness that are generated by the precepts which combine to offer to us on a golden platter the most important quality of all: liberating insight.

Insight comes through observation and the precepts give us a lot to observe.

When our practice has no moral structure our greed, anger and delusion do as they please. Like great powerful tigers they eat whatever and whenever they want. With a full belly they sleep, purr and saunter around, admiring their silky coats and flexing their deadly claws, all the time increasing in strength and becoming potentially more and more dangerous.

Lock them in a cage made of precepts, however, and there’ll soon start to weaken. How can they increase in strength when they aren’t getting fed?

But they don’t always go quietly: no longer able to do as they wish they start to make a fuss. And this, though sometimes uncomfortable, is actually what we want. Because when these harmful mental forces are aggravated we can see them more clearly. Seeing them clearly we are able to observe and investigate them. And it’s through investigating them that we reveal their true nature. We see how they rise and fall, how they don’t last, how in reality there is no substance to them. By understanding this they fall away.

When this three-fold process of uncovering, investigating and understanding is repeatedly practised, our insight accumulates. Gradually the defilements wither under our ever-present gaze of mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Eventually, they disappear altogether.

In some ways this isn’t such a difficult thing to do. It simply requires patience and a consistent practice that is led by the modest yet deceptively powerful hand of the precepts.

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Some time after Full Moon Day: Those three words…

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The first few weeks of my life at this monastery were not the easiest I have ever experienced, to put it mildly. The difficulty was by no means a result of ‘outside’; it was what was going in ‘inside’ that hurt. But I can tell you now, I am glad I am still here to tell the tale. Who knows what a troubled human being I might be were I not in robes.

On the 3rd of September 2000, with my soon to be lopped locks, blue jeans and beloved guernsey jumper, and not the faintest idea of what lay ahead, I stepped through the monastery gate armed with a pot plant, a colossal old-fashioned all-hell-breaking-loose alarm clock, and my brother. But he wasn’t staying.

After a few days word got back to me that some residents thought I had begun to resemble a startled rabbit. It was an accurate description. After three weeks I had planned my escape several times (my home was only ten miles away); fantasised about living on a desert island with my mother, a deck-chair and a book; turned from taking ¼ of a teaspoon of sugar in my tea to taking ¼ of a teaspoon of tea in my sugar; dreamt of the next meal as soon as I had finished eating the last (it was a mere 23 and ½ hour wait); and I was walking around in those same work-tired jeans, a once white tea-shirt, a bald head, and green flip flops – waiting for October 14th, the day I was to become a novice. In short, it had been a turbulent time for me.

But it was a test. And I passed it. Because I am still here. I was there for the meditation, and I knew that there were no other options open to me – if I was to be happy, that is. So my survival was down to a devotion to my meditation practice, a firmly entrenched disillusionment with the world, exemplary support from my fellow strivers, tea that contained so much sugar it actually made me giddy, and a few words from Luangpor that I will never forget…

One day after the meal it became very apparent to all present that the startled rabbit was not a happy bunny. There was Luangpor heading the line, followed by the two novices, and myself sitting in the corner in front of the glass doors where the cold draft used to remind me that I wasn’t wearing anything but a white sheet. And boy was I going through it. Now, I’m not sure what the expression on my face was but Luangpor was clearly concerned for me: “Are you all right?” he asked. Then, without restraint, I exclaimed: “It’s HORRIBLE!”

Then those three immortal words fell upon my ears, three words which in my mind now are spaced well apart to relay their significance: “….It ….will ….pass.“

And it did. Two months later and it was all gone. The despair, the escape plans, the Mach 4 emotional roller coaster: it seemed now to have been just a dream. Did I really go through all that?

But when I was clinging on to my little plank of wood for dear life in the throes of the raging ocean that was my experience I couldn’t see how it would ever be different. It all seemed so REAL – the despair, the self-pity, the longings – they were rushing in at me from all angles as I tried to stay afloat. Why did I stick it out? Why didn’t I run?

Well I didn’t run, and it passed.

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The next teaching will hopefully be on:

The new moon day, Monday, 22 June

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(Day after) New Moon Day: WHY???!!!

 

Well, I’ve had one of those weeks. Dukkha. For some reason it just hits you sometimes. Anyway, I’ve been through it before and so I know what to do: hang in there, endure, and wait for it to pass. Because it does pass. It all passes*.

When you become more aware of the Noble Truth of Dukkha it is often in an experiential way. So you actually experience suffering more acutely. You become more aware of the unsatisfactory nature of life.

WHY!!!???” I yelled in my kuti the other night.

WHY AM I HERE!!!???…

WHAT’S THE POINT!!!???…

WHAT KIND OF SICK JOKE IS THIS!!!???…

LOOK AT THIS WORLD!!!…

PEOPLE ARE BORN, THEY GET OLD, THEY GET SICK, AND THEY DIE !!!…

WHOOPEEEE!!!…

WHAT A PARTY!!!…

ARRRGHHHHHHHH!!!

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Continue reading (Day after) New Moon Day: WHY???!!!

Full Moon Day: There’s an Elephant Behind You

Kilesa

I’m not sure how it happened, but the Forest Hermitage’s email address has been sucked up by a local new-age group and so we now have the pleasure of receiving their e-newsletter. I glanced at the contents of one and quickly decided to condemn it and its successors for ever more to the spam bucket.

It was all right, I suppose. It was full of love, light and peace, maaan. (Plus a bit of sex.) And so it could have been a lot worse – talking about love, light and peace is not a bad thing, obviously.

But so often when people emphasize the good they ignore the bad. They pay no attention to the greed, hatred and delusion that is writhing beneath the surface of their minds. And of course this is not healthy, nor is it wise, because the bad needs to be addressed. For if it isn’t it will fester and grow and end up bursting through that positive veneer with little provocation.

Continue reading Full Moon Day: There’s an Elephant Behind You

(A few days after) New Moon Day: The Rhino and The Monkey

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There’s a great story in the Pali Canon – in the Jatakas, the tales of the Buddha’s former lives – of a rhino and a monkey.

This rhino was a very patient old beast. On the whole he did what you’d expect any rhino to do: he grazed, he slept, he grazed, he washed, and he slept some more. Sounds good!

But Continue reading (A few days after) New Moon Day: The Rhino and The Monkey