Broken Blog

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(Picture: at Wat Pah Nanachat, Thailand, 19 January 2014, with Luangpor and Tahn Maha (now Tahn Chao Khun), my preceptor and chanting acariya respectively.) 

For quite some time now Dhamma Diary has been rather poorly. And unfortunately I haven’t done much to make him better. Several months ago our main website, foresthermitage.org.uk, and the various attached blogs were seriously hacked and were only just rescued from the abyss thanks to backups (which didn’t include any images) and David Davies’ hard work.

For one reason or another my backups only went as far as 2011 (not that I’d written much since then because of my sixteen month stay in Thailand), and so my more recent posts were vapourised.

If I had been desperate to continue blogging on returning from Thailand I’d have fixed it by now. But I wasn’t and so I didn’t.

I’ve actually just returned from another stay in Thailand (this time I was away for two months). While over there I often reflected on the freedom we have over here to express the Dhamma in various ways to a new and eager audience. I relish this opportunity and am restless when I’m not taking it. So, it’s my intent to get back on this blogging platform.

As you’ll see (if you’ve been here before) I’ve been fixing the design. But there’s still a lot of work to do. You’ll notice none of the page or post links take you anywhere very interesting. I’ve no idea why this is but hope to straighten it all out in the next few days. (FIXED!)

On a side note, being a perfectionist I often put myself off doing things because I fear they won’t be good enough. But that’s something that will be overcome (note use of word will, not must!). I was recently treated to one of Winston Churchill’s classic quotes that sums up a healthy approach to succeeding in our endeavours. It goes for writing, but especially for meditation and progression on this challenging path.

“Success is nothing more than stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

A Wonderful Release? The Assisted-Suicide of Peter Smedley

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Televised Suicide

Films, plays, television and listening to Lady Gaga go gaga are out of bounds for monks. However, if, on a rare occasion, a suitably themed documentary is aired then it’s generally considered acceptable to watch it. By suitable we mean something that might promote virtue, meditation and wisdom, and not the usual greed, aversion and delusion. As you’ll know, such a programme doesn’t come around too often.

One contemporary issue that is calling for the attention of anyone concerned with moral and spiritual matters is assisted-suicide. The subject has attracted heavy coverage recently, not least because of a documentary called ‘Choosing to Die’, hosted by the famous author and now Alzheimers sufferer, Sir Terry Pratchett. I thought it might prove insightful viewing and so the other night I tuned into the BBC’s iPlayer and watched it.

For those of you who didn’t see the programme, Sir Terry followed the journey of Peter Smedley, a charming 71 year-old millionaire with motor neurone disease who had made up his mind to travel to the controversial Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end his life. His condition wasn’t particularly severe but, with the support of his wife, Christine, he chose to intervene before it got any worse. The documentary began with Peter sitting in his palatial home on Guernsey, and more or less finished with him slumped in a Swiss sofa, dead.

Dignitas, you will probably know, is an assisted-dying organisation that helps those with terminal-illnesses and severe mental and physical difficulties commit suicide with the aid of trained doctors and nurses. At a cost of £10,000 this non-profit organisation proposes to arrange for a peaceful death – from the initial consultations to check, among other things, that you are of a sound mind and that you are firm in your intentions, to the glass of poison administered some weeks later. The actual suicide takes place in their purpose-built blue and grey house situated next to a factory on an industrial estate in Zurich. It is not the most pleasant location, but the establishment and what goes on inside is legal and that is what matters for those people choosing to go down this route.

Which may soon include Mr Pratchett himself. With Alzheimers gradually taking its toll on his once brilliant mind, his interest in Peter’s experience was personal. As a potential Dignitas customer he wished to observe the entire process, not least the final moments when the poison takes effect. Was this something he’d be willing to go through? His reaction to it all was overwhelmingly positive (according to him Peter’s death had been ‘a happy event’) and so Sir Terry may well decide to follow in Peter’s footsteps in the not-too-distant future.

Now, the moral and spiritual issues surrounding assisted-suicide are very great in number. But here I would like to be fairly brief and focus on one particular element of the documentary: the quality of Peter’s final moments and their possible implications for him.

Was there the sense of ‘wonderful release’ that his doting wife had spoken of not long before?1 Was it to be as simple and as painless as falling asleep and not waking up? Obviously only he can have fully known the nature of his own experience as he took the poison and waited, but, even so, what was seen on screen was, I thought, very telling.

Approximately twenty minutes before his death, as the documentary neared its climax, he, his wife and an assistant called Erika sat around a circular table in the living-room of the blue and grey house as the pair chatted over a cup of tea, before he swallowed a chemical that would stop his stomach rejecting the poison he was about to take. The mood was jolly. He and Christine looked comfortable. He seemed to have no doubts whatsoever about what lay ahead. If you had only just tuned into the programme you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was a good-natured soap-opera as man and wife discussed which chocolate would taste best (with the poison).

A few minutes later the couple were nestled into a plump red sofa. The assistant, complete with poison, was perched on a chair to his side. For the final time she asked him if he was sure he wanted to go ahead. Not a hint of uncertainty was detectable as he confirmed his decision, confidently took the glass from her, and poured the contents – the barbiturate Nembutal – down his throat in one go. Now it was a matter of waiting.

Peter had been warned beforehand that after swallowing the poison he would become thirsty but that on no account should he drink any water as this would dilute the poison and therefore either prolong the dying process or prevent it altogether. After several minutes of becoming increasingly drowsy the thirst struck and quickly the viewing became, as he did, very uncomfortable.

With his wife fighting back tears he suddenly grabbed her arm, began to choke and was heard gasping, ‘Water…. Water…’ ‘No more water, just sleep.’ replied the ever-cool Erika. His struggle then subsided as he began to fade, and with the side of his head coming to rest on the assistant’s shoulder his eyes closed and he began to snore very loudly – a sign of respiratory failure.

‘He’s sleeping very, very deeply now,’ Erika told his wife. ‘Soon his breathing will stop and then his heart’.

And so they did.

Some Perspective

I did not view Peter’s death as ‘a happy event’, as Sir Terry had put it. On the contrary, I found those last one or two minutes made for difficult viewing. This is not because I am averse to seeing a man die – far from it – but because I felt for him.

It was plain to see, in my view, that Peter, as he choked and strained and gasped, was terrified. Just look at his final words: they were not tender expressions of love for his wife, nor of his elation at being very nearly ‘free’; they were harrowing pleas for water.

But this is not the end of the matter. If we stop to consider just what his chronic thirst implies we find a potentially significant and uncomfortable truth. Because what is it that underlies this desire for water? It is of course the innate desire to live.

Peter had made a rational decision to kill himself. To him, since severe discomfort and immobility would soon come to dominate his life, it seemed only sensible to put an end to it. And, he assumed, it would be as simple as swallowing some poison, going to sleep, and not waking up. But it appears that having taken the poison and set the process in motion, once the mortal thirst arrived the desire for death was rapidly eclipsed by the far more powerful intrinsic desire to live. All rationales behind his act were swept aside like autumn leaves before a gale; the cool and charming personality of twenty minutes before had gone. All that remained was this raw will to survive.

In the depths of his being it wasn’t death that he truly craved, but to live free of pain. Now, however, he had brought both pain and death upon himself, only to expose his innate urge to resist them. He craved life yet he had just taken his life. Can you imagine a more difficult experience than this?

So I would contend that Peter’s last conscious moments were by no means peaceful. On the contrary, they appear to have been characterised by intense physical discomfort, fear, distress and confusion. And by the intense desire to preserve his life.

But then he fell asleep. Was this the end of his mental anguish? We cannot be sure but it’s quite possible that the turmoil continued into a dream-like or semi-conscious state. Perhaps he was even fully conscious as his respiratory system and then heart failed, in the same way that people in comas can sometimes be aware of their condition. And so what of his dreams, if he had any? Taking into account his life-threatening thirst, and the various forms of anguish we suppose he was experiencing, it’s reasonable to say there would have been no dream – just a nightmare. And what if he had been conscious of the whole process up until the point of death? One can only imagine his suffering was acute.

Whether he was truly asleep or not, however, the snoring, and his heart, did finally stop.

The Implications

As for the implications, for him2, of his troubled final moments, our take on what these could have been will depend on our view of what happens after the moment of death.

For a materialist, that is someone who believes that only matter exists and that death heralds the complete end to everything about a conscious being, all talk of implications for the individual is meaningless. The last few minutes of suffering experienced by Peter would probably be seen as a small price to pay for the months or years of discomfort of which they suppose him to be now relieved.

For the person who reserves judgement over what, if anything, follows death until they reach that point, I think they might be cautious of entering the great unknown under such negative circumstances.

And for those of us who do accept the doctrine of rebirth? For us, the taking of ones life is viewed as a deeply unskilful act, with grave implications for the individual. Let me try to explain why this might be so.

According to Buddhist teaching, the thought-processes that immediately precede a person’s death are highly significant for it is precisely these that determine the first thought-processes of the next life. It is not dissimilar to how a thought obsessing the mind before sleep will often be the first to appear when one awakes.

Furthermore, it is the moral nature of the thought-objects which constitute these processess which determine both the nature of the new physical form and the station of rebirth.  By thought-object we mean a memory or some kind of vision.*

So, the serial-killer, because of his habitual deeply immoral acts, will experience a thought-object expressing the grave nature of those deeds – for instance a horrific memory or the image of a bloody knife. This thought-object will thus condition an unfavourable rebirth. The philanthropist, on the other hand, may experience a memory that embodies the joy and happiness he so often felt and gave. Thus he can expect a favourable rebirth.

Central to all of this is the doctrine of kamma – the moral law of intentional action and result. Briefly put, our wholesome actions – that is those rooted in generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom – produce pleasant results; our unwholesome actions – those rooted in greed, aversion and delusion – produce unpleasant results.

Who we are now, and the happiness and the suffering that we experience, is nothing but the result of these wholesome and unwholesome deeds of body, speech and mind performed in the past. Likewise, who we will be in the future is determined by the wholesome and unwholesome deeds of body, speech and mind of the present. Death, for us, does not interrupt this process; the individual stream of consciousness, driven by craving, merely latches on to a new physical form and this conditioning process continues.

Bearing all of this in mind we see that, since birth follows death, suicide is no solution to the problem of suffering. And, as a weighty act born of strong aversion directed towards oneself (or one’s condition), it will have serious consequences for the next life.

Apart from the doctrine of rebirth being a logical theory that explains many things about our lives, it is backed up by compelling evidence: thousands of accounts of young children with memories that indicate beyond reasonable doubt they had lived before. Even the famous sceptic and debunker Carl Sagan, aware of some of these children’s memories, admitted they could only be understood through the theory of ‘reincarnation’3, and that it was therefore a subject worthy of ‘serious study’.4

And so what of Peter? With the trauma caused by his own act of suicide dominating his final moments, his dying thoughts were no doubt fixed upon that destructive deed. Thus it seems likely that the thought-object would have been intensely undesirable and therefore his rebirth will have been too.

Peter, if the doctrine of rebirth is correct, appears to have made a terrible mistake.

 

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1. I am 90 per cent certain this is what she said. If it wasn’t then what she did say was very close to it and meant the same thing.

2. As for the wider implications of assisted-suicide, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. I would agree with the many who say assisted-suicide should have no place in civilised society, no matter what your view on rebirth. For more of a Buddhist overview of the subject I recommend this article.

* It is important to note that when this dying thought-process takes place, we will have no control over what the thought-object is. It will either be related to an act habitually performed (which is why Buddhists say that life, in a way, is preparation for death, and hence why we try to cultivate good habits); a vision of the realm that awaits; or, and here our attention returns to Peter, to a weighty act – good or bad – done just before the moment of death.

It is also worth pointing out that the final thought-object will arise no matter what the dying person’s condition or how quickly death takes place, i.e. whether he drowns, dies instantly in a car crash, falls from a cliff, is fast asleep, or is blind drunk.

3. Buddhists should use the term ‘rebirth’ to distinguish it from ‘reincarnation’ as the latter involves the transmigration of an immortal soul. Buddhism teaches that the belief in such an entity is a delusion. The term ‘rebirth’, however, is not entirely satisfactory, as it still implies that ‘something’ or ‘someone’ is ‘re-born’; in reality there is only a chain of mental and physical causes and effects.

4. Further reading on the topic of Rebirth and Kamma:

Rebirth and Questions on Kamma (Two excellent short and succinct introductions)

The Case for Rebirth (includes a case history)

Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience: Essays and Case Studies (See Part 2)

Rebirth Explained (Includes a detailed analysis of the actual process)

Dhamma Without Rebirth?

Kamma and its Fruit

Fundamentals of Buddhism: Kamma and Rebirth

Articles by and about Dr Ian Stevenson, who collected thousands of cases of rebirth

‘Born Again’, an article from the Bangkok Post

‘Could a Little Boy Be Proof of Reincarnation?’

‘Science and the Near-Death Experience’ Compelling evidence undermining materialism.


 

Six Ways to Improve Mindfulness – Part 5 and Summary

6. ORIENTATE

Sight – check. Sound – check. Smell – check. Taste – check. Touch – check. To orientate ourselves to the present moment we can do this simple exercise. We pay attention to the doors of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and body to see what exactly is happening there. Just as the captain of a ship checks his compass to determine his position; so we can check each of the sense-doors to determine our position – which is, of course, the present.

If we are not careful, these inner worlds of ours easily become choked with troublesome thoughts, perceptions, memories and characters. But are these private worlds we drag around a true reflection of the outside world? Aren’t they just based largely on our own mistaken perceptions? How many times do we pass judgement on something, only to have it promptly overturned moments later? Our inner worlds are – for the most part – disconnected from reality, from what is actually going on right now.

And so it is crucial that we learn to be mindful of what is happening around us; that we pause to pay attention to what is occurring, in the present, at each of the sense-doors. The sense-doors are our windows to the world, and to stop the creation of more mental proliferation we must be vigilant and learn to just observe. To be mindful of what is actually happening around us puts a break on these meanderings of the mind and we become aware of what is right in front of our noses.

We can begin with sight. Here we pay attention to the objects that occupy our field of vision and try to let there be just what is seen. Normally there is a moment of bare perception – when we simply see – before the labels, perceptions and associations come tumbling along and bury it. So, for instance, we see a teacup, and with that seeing come all manner of things such as liking or disliking, memories of good cups of tea had, thoughts of who gave the cup, etc. So, our experience of seeing the teacup largely comprises our own inner proliferations; we are not actually seeing the teacup.

If we let go of all the associations, perceptions, liking and disliking, etc., there will be the bare experience of seeing. So when this happens what do we actually see? Colour and shape – that is all. To just see is to see without labels, without commentary, without proliferation. We see the teacup as it actually is: a white upturned semi-circle with a few wiggly blue lines on the face and a little thin ear-shaped bit on the side, and nothing more. And so it is with the other things that fill our little screens, where there is no ‘dog’, no ‘tree’, no ‘miserable mother-in-law’ – just a few brown lines, a wavy green blob, a red square. As the Buddha said, ‘When seeing, just let there be what is seen.’ So we drop all of the inner-commentary and experience just seeing.

Then we move to sounds. What can you actually hear? Listen carefully and try to be aware of the various sounds around you. The longer you listen, the more you will hear. And again, try to hear without the labels and commentary; ‘When hearing, just let there be what is heard.’ There’s the sharp tweet of a bird – though we don’t label it ‘bird’; there’s the whirrr of the fridge – though we don’t label it ‘fridge’. We pay attention to how the sounds actually sound, without piling our conditioned reactions onto them. We notice the textures of sounds, the pitches, the frequencies, and so on. We are mindful of the bare experience of just hearing.

Then we do the same for tastes, odours and bodily sensations. At each of these doors we ask: ‘What is actually happening? What is being experienced?’ Bitter, sweet, bland, spicy, sour; strong, subtle, sweet, pungent; warm, cool, comfortable, painful, etc… We are mindful of the bare experiences of just tasting, just smelling and just feeling.

Not only does this orientate us to the present but it fosters a very subtle awareness. For instance, as we are mindful of what we can hear we gradually tune into sounds which would usually go unnoticed. Try it now. What can you actually hear? After a few moments the quieter sounds will begin to appear to you. You will hear the faint hum of the traffic, the rustling of the leaves, perhaps even the snoring of a mouse! And in the same way you will notice subtle experiences at the other sense-doors – experiences which had hitherto been undetected.

To begin with, this practice serves to help remind us of the simplicity of the moment. But as we progress, these sense-bases – including the sixth: mind – become the source of liberating wisdom. The more carefully we examine sense-impressions with an unclouded awareness the more we will gain insight into their ephemeral nature. We like to say that ‘Everything speaks the Dhamma’, that every experience speaks the truth. Well, if we really learn to just see, just listen, just smell, and so on, then we will hear that message. And what will these experiences tell us? ‘I am transient, unsatisfactory, and empty!’ In this way the senses cease to be substantial and a great sense of ease and relief takes its rightful place.

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Summary of the Six Ways

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1. QUIET: Convenient, efficient, rewarding. Simply take your time to do something quietly and see how your mindfulness levels immediately increase. Mindfulness turns all of our actions into an art form, and it is especially so with this method.

2. STOP: In theory simple, in practice not always, but deeply rewarding if we can really do it. As the method’s name implies our sole concern is to stop. We put down our things, and stop externally; and we put down our thoughts/worries/plans/emotions, and stop internally.

3. BREATHE: The breath is always available and it is very discreet. When a few minutes present themselves to you don’t fiddle with your phone or pick your nose – make that time count by focussing on your breathing. Even ten breaths will make a difference.

4. TOUCH: Pause and take a few moments to focus on the obvious points of contact experienced around the body, for instance your feet touching the floor: examine the sensations and be mindful of hardness, texture, temperature and movement. Don’t spend too long on one contact point before moving to the next.

5. SLOW: Often taught by meditation teachers and for good reason: not only is it devastatingly simple, it is perhaps unparalleled in its potential to enhance our moment-to moment awareness. Making a cup of tea? Do it slowly and see what happens.

6. ORIENTATE: The captain of a ship checks his compass to determine his position; so too can we be mindful of what is occurring at each of the sense-doors to determine our position – which is, of course, the present. Simply be mindful of exactly what you are experiencing at the doors of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and body.

 

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 3

If you’re new to this series of posts on improving mindfulness then it might be worth your while scrolling down to the first as it’ll put this and the previous post in context. You’ll read more in general about the benefits of improved mindfulness and the drawbacks of letting it slip.

4. TOUCH

Just pause for a moment and scan your body with your awareness. Notice where there is contact between your body and something else, for example the soles of your feet and the floor, your bum and the seat, and your neck and your collar. These areas are mindfulness power points: focussing on them will help us to develop sustained attention, mental agility, and – as it is the refined sensations that we are interested in – a greater subtlety of awareness.

When concentrating on a contact point we examine the various qualities of the physical sensation. We take an interest in seeing what is actually going on when we touch something. We notice such experiences as temperature: is it warm or cool? Texture: rough or smooth? Hardness: hard or soft? As we become more focussed we look for movement: is the sensation still or is it changing? If it’s changing is it doing so rapidly or slowly? We try to focus exclusively on the point of contact, knowing it as clearly and as intimately as we can.

Concentrating on these contact points is – like focussing on the breath – an exercise in stealth mindfulness: no-one will know you’re doing it. It can also be done at any time. Kicking your feet in the queue at Tesco’s? Shift your attention to your hands in your pockets and examine the sensations there. Enduring a typical life-and-death episode of EastEnders that your other-half is forcing you to watch? Focus on the back of your head resting against the cushion and allow the on-screen pandemonium to fade into the background. And if a difficult customer is getting angry, stay cool by anchoring your mind on a contact point; in a challenging situation doing this will help to stabilise you.

With this mindfulness exercise you can concentrate on just one point or you can move between several. Focussing on one allows you to develop your ability to sustain attention, but it may also bring additional benefits depending on its location. For instance, by being mindful of the sensations on the soles of your feet you will feel grounded, and as you are at the point of your body furthest from your head – the place where you see, hear, taste and smell – you will experience the simple joy of not being dominated by those senses for a few moments.

Moving from one contact point to another is an exercise in both concentration and mental agility. Begin by focussing on the sole of your left foot for ten seconds (you don’t need to count – this is just a guide. And you might want to stay at each place for longer). Afterwards, move your mind to your right foot and do the same. Then, in an upward direction, move to the other main contact points (in my case while sitting in an office chair) such as the back of your left and right thighs, your bum, lower back, forearms, fingers, neck, lips and eyelids. Pause at each spot, notice the various qualities of the sensations, and then move on to the next. Pause, notice and move on. After a minute or two of this you can unplug your mind from these points and return to what you were doing.

A few words on walking meditation

Take advantage of a quiet walk through a park and focus on the contact between the soles of your feet and the ground. Very often when practising walking meditation this is exactly what we do, although here you will probably only have a few minutes, as opposed to the hour or so usually given.

As you walk, be mindful of the sensations arising at the soles of the feet. Notice the pressure as it shifts from the heel to the toes of your left foot. Then switch your attention to the right foot and observe it in the same way. Repeat this for as long as you can. Walking meditation is perhaps one of the best ways to strengthen your everyday mindfulness.

 

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Next up we have SLOW, where we, errr, slow down – a very simple yet powerful way to develop mindfulness of the body.

 

Six Ways to Improve Mindfulness – Part 2

3. BREATHE

How many minutes of the day do we have when there is nothing in particular for us to do? I’d say if we totted them up there’d be at least thirty, and almost certainly more. Think about how much time you spend fiddling with your phone, checking the news for the billionth time, standing around waiting for the bus, or chewing your nails while British Telecom put you on hold. Surely there’s something else we could be doing – something that will actually benefit us. There is. It’s being mindful of the breath.

We have the breath wherever we go. To concentrate on it requires no special equipment – no cushions, no meditation beads, no fancy foam thing for your hands to rest on. So not only is it accessible at all times (unless you’re dead), but it is discreet. You can focus on your breathing wherever you are and nobody will notice.

Being mindful of the breath is perhaps one of the best ways to recharge your mindfulness. Even focussing on ten breaths can make a huge difference. I heard of a man, I believe a nurse, who depended on his meditation to get him through a particularly tough situation: lunchtime in a mental hospital. Before he walked through those doors into the chaos of the canteen, he paused to collect his mind. In he then went – calm, composed, and ready for battle.

It’s important to recognise that your concentration during these short spells may not initially be of a high standard. But even though you might spend all of that time reigning the mind in as it rushes off to thoughts and feelings, at least you are exercising it. To pull the mind away from thoughts and feelings is to exercise it, to strengthen it, to gain some control. So much suffering arises through us being at the whim of our thoughts and feelings. To stop every so often and hold our attention on the breath is to take some control over our mind, and, consequently, our life.

So be awake to opportunities. When I first started practising meditation I would usually sit formerly in the morning and then again in the evening. These were the twin pillars that supported my practice. But then I also experimented with mindfulness-of-breathing at other times. I’d spend a few minutes sitting in the quiet section of the library in between lessons at college; I’d try and hold my attention on the breath as I bounced up and down on the seat of the college bus; I’d stop half-way through walking the dog and focus on some breaths. Not only did this help me right there and then, but the benefits of those moments of mindfulness that I sprinkled throughout the day would accumulate. They were like an investment: come the evening I’d feel calm, focussed, and I’d be carrying much, much less baggage.

There are many ways to be mindful of the breath. Part of our practice can be judging which of these ways best suits a certain situation. Tired? Ten short sharp breaths. Restless? Ten long, slow, deep breaths. Already calm? Then let the breath be natural. You could time yourself. Set your alarm to go off in three minutes. Focus on your breathing until the alarm goes off. If you don’t have three minutes, try two, or one. If you have the luxury you could pause every half-an-hour and focus on the breath for five minutes. Try it and see what happens.

Like any skill, the more we practise in this way the better we will be at it. The breath will become our refuge. You have probably heard of power-napping, where people are able to drop into deep sleep for a very short period and wake up refreshed, as though they’d been asleep for hours. We can also train our mind to ‘drop into’ the breath. We put down what we are carrying, we put down our thoughts and moods, and we ‘drop into’ the breath. When we emerge, even after one minute, we will feel like new.


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: The Pātimokkha

I’ve got some work to do. And it involves my memory – lots of it, too!

Every fortnight – where there are four or more bhikkhus – one monk will be designated to chant the Pātimokkha. It takes approximately forty-five minutes; it is in Pāli; it is usually recited exceptionally quickly (Eminem would be impressed – seriously); and it must be chanted from memory. I learnt it about nine years ago, and chanted it a handful of times during the short period when there were four bhikkhus at the Hermitage. But that was a while ago now and needless to say I let it slip.

But it looks like my time has come again. This isn’t because we have four bhikkhus in residence – it’s been just Luangpor and myself for almost seven years now (with various novices appearing from time to time). It’s because we have some guests arriving from Thailand, and not any old guests, but Luangpor Liam – an early disciple of Ajahn Chah and the Abbot of Wat Pah Pong, Luangpor Anek – a monk of similar standing, and a few assistants including Ajahn Kevali – the current abbot of Wat Pah Nanachat.

They will be here for about five days (before they move on to other monasteries in Europe) and one of those will fall on the first of two new-moon days in June. As it is on the full- and new- moon days that the Pātimokkha is chanted, and as there will be more than four monks here, one of those present will be required to take the hot seat. And, thanks to Luangpor’s suggestion made in my absence, I will be that monk. I can feel the heat already.

So what is the Pātimokkha?

Many moons ago, within a year of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, 1,250 enlightened bhikkhus, all of whom had been ordained by him, gathered spontaneously at the Bamboo Grove near Rajagaha. The Buddha, aware of their presence, descended from his retreat on the nearby Vulture’s Peak rock and took his place among them. He led them in meditation into the night and then, in the small hours, with the full-moon of the month of Magha suspended in the darkness far above their shaven heads, delivered the Ovāda Pātimokkha.

It was a short discourse – it has come down to us as three pithy verses – but it was significant, both for its content: it contains one of the most concise summaries of Buddhism we have*; and for the tradition that it established. That tradition is the fortnightly gathering of bhikkhus for the recitation of the Pātimokkha.

The Pātimokkha is the code of conduct governing the life of Sangha members. The Buddha established the Bhikkhu Pātimokkha for monks, and the Bhikkhūni Pātimokkha for nuns. The Bhikkhu Pātimokkha consists of 227 precepts which govern all areas of our lives. From the seventy-five Sekhiyās – which inform us how to conduct ourselves in public, during meal times, and while teaching Dhamma; to the Pārājikās – the four heaviest rules which entail automatic and immediate expulsion from the Sangha when broken. The pursuit of freedom from suffering is a serious one; and so is the observance of the precepts that lead you there.

I remember how, very shortly after I took full ordination as a bhikkhu – I think even on the same day – feeling as though a giant invisible safety net had just been installed beneath me. Suddenly, I was safe. Suddenly, many courses of action and speech were unavailable to me. But these limitations that are imposed by the Pātimokkha are not restrictive in nature: they are liberating. They liberate you from actions that drag you further into suffering.

Liberation is not doing and saying everything that your greed and hatred demand – that’s slavery. Liberation is being free from greed and hatred, and to be free from greed and hatred we must restrain them, understand them, and let them go. This is one of the prime functions of the Pātimokkha, and of the five precepts of a lay-person for that matter: to help you to restrain the causes of suffering, see them, understand them, and then let them go.

So I gotta learn it all over again. Thankfully, it isn’t taking too much coaxing to get it flowing how it used to, and I do have three months to go until the big day. So, I should be all right.

The photo at the top shows the remains of a little Uposatha hall nestled on an island in Sukhothai, Thailand. Uposatha halls are used for Sanghakammas – ‘actions of the Sangha’ – including bhikkhu ordinations and the recitation of the Pātimokkha. Do you see the little bridge on the left and the stupas in the background?

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* ”Avoid all evil; Cultivate the good; And purify the mind; This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.”.(The Dhammapada, Verse 183)

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