Death: Questions and Answers

Following on from the recent post Meditation: Questions and Answers for 11-14 year olds, here are the ones on death. These will be used in a new textbook on Buddhism being published for schools.

How do you view the idea of death? 
The idea of death is very important to me. It’s actually one of the main reasons why I became a monk. I can remember one Sunday night lying in bed at home, when I was nineteen years old, suddenly realising how quickly my life was passing. It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning! And so I made up my mind there and then to do something of value before I die. I didn’t want to reach the end of my life and think: ‘What a waste!’ Some people don’t like to think about death, but that’s a mistake. After all, it’s the only certainty in life. If we ignore death then sooner or later when it does happen to us or those around us we will suffer greatly.

What is important to remember about death?
That it’s going to happen; and that it could happen at any time! It’s easy to forget this and live as if we’re immortal. But we’re not, and that big door marked ‘Death’ is gradually moving closer. One of the first things I like to do in the morning is say to myself: ‘Today could be my last day.’ Doing this makes me realise that time is precious. It helps me to be kind and to make an effort with everything I do. I also remind myself that, according to the Buddha, death is not the end and that there will be rebirth for those of us who aren’t enlightened. Because I accept this teaching it makes me more careful about what I say and do. For instance, if I’m angry, I’ll remind myself that if I were to die right now my rebirth might not be a happy one.

As a Buddhist how do you prepare for dying?
Buddhists sometimes say that living is preparation for dying. This might sound weird, but it actually helps us to live in the best way possible. You see, according to Buddhist teaching, our last moments in this life will affect the first moments in the next life (it’s a bit like when you go to sleep with a good or bad thought in your mind: it’ll often be the first one that appears when you wake up). But what affects the way we think and feel just before we die? How we live our life now! We often hear of people seeing their life flash before their eyes when they’re close to death. Imagine if you’d spent your whole life being selfish and hurting others. How would you feel? Pretty terrible. But if you’ve been kind, patient and thoughtful then your last moments of this life, and the first moments of your next life, will be good.

Are there any key Buddhist texts or stories about death that you find helpful?
One of my favourites is the story of Kisa Gotami. She refused to believe that her young child had died and in desperation asked people for a cure. Eventually she went to the Buddha, who told her to bring him a mustard seed. ‘But’, he said, ‘It has to come from a house where no one has ever died.’ So, she went from door to door, but everywhere received the same response: ‘I have a seed, but Mother died yesterday… Brother last week… Grandma a year ago…’ Finally, she got the message: death is universal and no one can escape it; and she overcame her grief. Another favourite is a sutta that teaches us to strive to reach enlightenment. The Buddha asks us to imagine a person with his head on fire – how much effort would he make to put out the flames? A lot! He’d think of nothing else! Then the Buddha said that we should make the same effort to free our minds of greed, hatred and ignorance because we can’t be sure when death will come.

Ajahn Chah’s Teachings: “Same for Me!”

Rock solid: Ven. Ajahn Chah in the Hermitage’s shrine room

By the time you read this I’ll be in Thailand. The 16th January will mark the twenty-sixth anniversary of Ajahn Chah’s passing, and, as usual, I will be accompanying Luangpor as he and fellow monks, nuns and lay followers from Thailand and abroad gather at Wat Pah Pong to remember their teacher.

Far from the annual event fading over time, as you might expect, it actually seems to be growing. Indeed, it’s now one of the biggest events in the province of Ubon. Just think about that for a second: tens of thousands of people gathering to celebrate virtue, kindness and wisdom – the qualities which Ajahn Chah both taught and embodied. How often does something like that happen in this world?

To add to the occasion, in June it will have been Ajahn Chah’s 100th birthday. Over the last few years, in readiness for next week, monks from Wat Pah Pong have led the construction of an Ashokan-style solid limestone carved pillar at the place of his birth, just a mile or so from the monastery; and, to ensure that people find their way, the road that links the two has been lined with about 10,000 sunflowers. By the time devotees arrive at the column, there’s no way they won’t be smiling.

As is the case with countless people, Ajahn Chah’s teachings have had a profound impact on me. In fact, I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I were to say that had it not been for his words I wouldn’t have made it this far as a monk. Confused, despairing or full of doubt: whenever I’ve been at a low ebb I’ve picked up Food for the Heart or Living Dhamma or one of the other slim, unassuming books with no price tag and sat down and flicked to a random page. Five minutes later and I’ll be grounded and sure of my purpose. Together with Luangpor, I regard him as my main teacher.

Of course, I never met him. He passed away in 1992 and because of illness hadn’t taught for 10 years before that. But when I read him I feel I know him. And, what’s more, it’s as if he knows me and what I’m going through, because, judging by all accounts, it’s likely he went through something similar himself. And even when I’ve put down the book, and I’m sweeping out in the cold, or sitting impatiently waiting for the meal, or becoming frustrated with my meditation practice, he’s still there in my mind: nagging me, encouraging me, advising me. His similes and stories occupy their own little corner of my head, and whenever I’m confronted with a particular problem: out pops the relevant quote to the rescue.

There are countless gems to be found in his Dhamma talks – from a quote of three words, to an epic tale about his experiences confronting tigers in the forest. And there’s the endless list of accounts passed down by his students. But here and in some future posts I’d like to mention just a few teachings that have been particularly useful to me. I should also add that I haven’t actually read anything of his (except for the odd quote that has appeared somewhere) for quite some time; and so what follows are stories and teachings which, owing to their relevance to my own practice, have percolated to the top.

Same for me!
Luangpor spent over five years living close to Ajahn Chah – either with him, at Wat Pah Pong, or in one of the many branch monasteries in the North East of Thailand. And so, as anyone who has spent some time here at the Hermitage will testify, he is not short of classic Ajahn Chah stories. And because I’ve spent most of my seventeen monastic years living with Luangpor, I know most of them off by heart. This is one.

It’s common – indeed expected – for new monks to struggle from time to time. Doubt, lust, boredom, restlessness, homesickness, sitting all day dreaming of bananas: far from being a peaceful existence, the early stages (and sometimes the latter ones, too!) can be, as Ajahn Chah said, like ‘walking into a raging storm’. Consequently, if a junior monk is seen to spend his days floating around the monastery, bestowing beatific smiles upon his fellows in the holy life, it can be guessed that he’s not doing it right. Anyway, on one occasion Luangpor was – as we say – going through it, and somehow word of his struggles got to Ajahn Chah.

Thus, one evening, when the community was gathered beneath Ajahn Chah’s kuti, Luangpor, a junior monk who had been sitting inconspicuously in the outer rows, was suddenly called forward into the spotlight. Ajahn Chah wanted to know what was wrong. And so Luangpor tried to describe, as best he could in his halting Thai, what he was experiencing. When he had finished, Ajahn Chah leaned forward from his trusty rattan seat, beaming at Luangpor and pointing to himself, and simply said, ‘Same for me!’

That was all he said, and it worked. Luangpor’s troubles didn’t vanish on the spot, but the knowledge that this great monk with the unshakable mind had been through the wringer gave him a much-needed boost in patience, determination and, most importantly, hope.

Rock Solid

Hanging on the wall of Luangpor’s kuti is a rare photograph of Ajahn Chah sitting on that very same rattan seat. His bare feet are on the concrete, his hands are flat on the seat either side of his hips, and he’s leaning forward slightly while looking at the photographer. It’s an unremarkable photo in all respects except for one: his expression.

When I first saw it my immediate impression was that this was a man who could have handled anything. Don’t get me wrong: he isn’t flexing his muscles and scowling. On the contrary, he looks utterly relaxed and at ease – like there’s absolutely nowhere else he’d rather be than sitting on that simple seat on the plain concrete floor in the middle of the forest. But there’s something else in his expression, something immovable and unshakeable. It’s an expression that says, ‘Try me,’ knowing full well that to do so would be futile. And somehow you can also tell that this unassailable peace of mind was hard-won; that it was a product of unremitting perseverance and dedication; that it arose as a direct result of having been through, and having seen though, it all.

Caramel Surprise!

Well, it wasn’t actually a Caramel Surprise –  the famous Caramel Surprise, from Sainsbury’s, which good old Rose used to bring to the monastery on a Thursday morning – but it looked mighty similar. A light coffee-brown sludge with a topping of whipped cream was visible through the side of the plastic pot. Yes – it was the spitting image. As for the most important question: did it taste the same? I don’t know, because I didn’t have one.

There were only two, you see. Not enough to go around. Nevertheless, there they were, perched next to each other on a tray, ready to be presented to Luangpor as part of the meal offering. They weren’t the only desserts: there were two chocolate versions sitting right beside them as well. But who wants chocolate when there’s caramel? Anyway, two caramel desserts there were, and the tray upon which they rested was placed into Luangpor’s hands.

He took one – naturally – and slid the tray along the floor to me, where I was confronted with one caramel dessert and the two chocolate ones. Desire for the caramel arose. I like caramel. I had eyes only for the caramel. But, exerting my will and bringing to mind the wisdom of sages past, I held back the twitching fingers of one hand and pushed along the tray with the other. Yes – I had resisted my desire for caramel so that some other fortunate being might partake of the heavenly nectar.

However, for some inexplicable reason, the person next in the line didn’t take it. I repeat: he didn’t take it. I’m not even sure he took a chocolate one. What on earth is this? I thought; and I looked on, perplexed, as it disappeared out into the kitchen, no doubt to be pounced upon by an ecstatic guest. ‘You’ve done well, Manapo,’ I reassured myself – not without a twinge of regret.

Twenty-four hours later and I’m sitting in the small shrine room – the room in which we eat – but this time I am at the head of the line. Luangpor is unwell and will be eating in his kuti. I will therefore be receiving the offerings, and putting food into his bowl as well as my own. Before the process begins, I cast my eyes across the dozen trays of food – from the white rice and baked potatoes at the front, to the soy milk and collection of condiments at the back – and what do I see in the middle, alone among the chocolate digestives? The caramel dessert.

It’s impossible, I thought. Why did no one take it? And then I paused, looked to my left, and, remembering that I was at the head of the line, realised that my time had come. I had, after all, forfeited my opportunity yesterday. Why should I not be rewarded today? The rice came and went. The baked potatoes passed. And all the while it moved nearer, until, there it was before me, in all it’s High-Density Polyethylene and tin foil-topped glory.

I put it in Luangpor’s bowl.

‘But he’ll never know!’ part of me protested. ‘And even if he did, he wouldn’t mind. He’d be happy for you!’ That’s not the point’, I replied. ‘It’ll be two seconds of pleasure followed by two days of wishing I’d given it to Luangpor. I’m giving it to him.’ There was no argument, and once the blessing had been given, Luangpor’s bowl was delivered to him in his kuti, complete with… you know what.

But, and let me be serious now, when I think back to that occasion – when I remember fighting my own greed for the sake of someone else – I feel pleased. I am glad that I did it. The few minutes of disappointment that I may have felt at being denied that little pleasure simply pale in comparison to the bright, uplifting memory that I can recall at any time.

If, on the other hand, I had followed my cravings and taken the caramel for myself, I would, as I told myself on that day, have experienced a few fleeting moments of pleasure before succumbing to remorse. Of course, we’re only talking about a pudding here, for goodness sake. It’s not as if I wanted to kill someone. But still, to have given into my greed, to have not taken that opportunity to have shared, especially when the recipient would have been unaware of the sacrifice I’d made (which is the best kind of giving), would have left me feeling weak and disappointed.

It’s kamma-vipāka – actions and their results. The law of kamma and its workings is, in many ways, exceedingly complex – so much so that the Buddha cautioned us against attempting to fully comprehend it as doing so could well send us mad. However, it does follow certain principles, and these principles we must understand.

To put it simply, when a particular action is rooted in greed, aversion and delusion, the fruit of that action will correspond to the defiled nature of that intention: in other words, it will be experienced as unpleasant. Bitter seed = bitter fruit. Conversely, if an action is rooted in the opposites, that is of non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion (or generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom) then the result will be experienced as pleasant. Sweet seed = Sweet fruit.

Of course, our lives are an intricate web of good and bad actions and their results, and so in some instances it can be difficult – perhaps impossible – to link up one with the other (and that’s not even taking into account actions that may have been performed in previous lives). Thus we can appreciate the Buddha’s warning. But, nevertheless, it’s not difficult to look back at our lives and see how certain actions have affected us.

Which brings us to memory. Because how we feel when we remember an action is a portion of its fruit. How do I feel when I remember giving away that caramel dessert? Good. How do I feel when I remember an occasion over twenty years ago when I refused to allow my little brother to have a go on my new surfboard, purely out of spite? Not so good. It some respects, it really is this simple.

And so, the next time you’re sitting down to eat with two friends and there are only two caramel desserts, you know what to do.

 

Freedom from Grief?

A little while ago I came across an article on the Buddhist concept of ‘dukkha’, by a prominent lay-teacher, at tricycle.org. It went reasonably well until the following paragraph. I highlight the point in question in bold.

‘Dukkha is different from pain. Buddhist thought makes a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is part of our human experience. For example, getting sick is painful, as is grief at the loss of a loved one; this is natural and appropriate. However, we then tend to generate a whole extra layer of suffering, through our difficulty in accepting how things are. When we resist the natural flow of life we create suffering, stress, and struggle.’

Firstly, and before we get to the meat of the issue, the way she separates pain from dukkha is wrong. Although illness (which she classes as pain and not as dukkha) is certainly unavoidable, it is still, according the First Noble Truth, dukkha, as we’ll see in a minute.

What she is attempting to say is that there are some kinds of suffering which we cannot avoid, such as aging, physical pain and illness, and some that we can. She doesn’t provide examples for the second kind, but it would include greed, fear, anger, frustration, jealousy, and so on.

One of the Buddha’s clearest teachings on unavoidable and avoidable suffering is the simile of the two darts: the first dart is the physical pain, the second dart is the mental pain that arises when we react with aversion to that physical pain. The first dart we cannot escape; the second we can.

However, and this is the main point here, she includes grief in the first kind of suffering – that which is ‘part of our human experience’, ‘natural and appropriate’. In other words, it’s not the kind of pain and suffering that we are aiming to overcome.

But this goes against what the Buddha taught. Grief, according to the Buddha, is part and parcel of this ‘whole mass of suffering’. As he said in the First Sermon: ‘Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha.’

It is precisely this dukkha that we are trying to end by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

She says that dukkha arises because we ‘[have] difficulty in accepting how things are.’ But why doesn’t she apply this principle to grief? Isn’t the fact that things die ‘how things are’? And don’t we grieve when we can’t accept this?

If we truly see the way things are then grief will simply not arise, because we understand, as the Buddha pointed out to a distraught Ananda shortly before he, the Buddha, was going to pass away, that: ‘Whatever is born must die. How can it be otherwise?’

Cold and Uncaring?

People have difficulty understanding this teaching on grief, as they do with the one on non-attachment. I remember another Western Buddhist teacher saying that when he discovered that arahants don’t grieve he decided that he didn’t want that kind of enlightenment. It’s as if to give up our attachment and grief is to remove our love and compassion. But it’s not like this at all.

I often tell the story of when my mother dropped off my younger brother at the airport. He was going to New Zealand for the long-term, and she wouldn’t be seeing him again for some time. At this point she had been meditating for a few years, as well as paying attention to the teachings.

As she was driving back to her home from the airport ( a good 90 minute journey) she suddenly realised something: ‘Hold on a minute’, she thought to herself, ‘I’m not crying’. It shocked her. She realised that had she not found meditation, nor the Buddha’s teachings on letting go, it would have been a very emotional, and painful, parting. She’d have been reluctant to let him go. But she also realised that that reaction would have been a purely selfish one, and unbeneficial to both her and my brother.

She hadn’t stopped loving him, of course, but she had let him go. There was no loss of warmth, just a loss of selfish clinging.

Meditation: Questions and Answers

Last Tuesday on Copdock Hill – first proper snow in years!

I was recently asked to answer some questions on meditation and death for a new Buddhism text book that’s being written for 11 – 14 year old school children. The word limit was 600 for each topic. Thought I’d post the meditation questions and my answers here. Death ones to follow.

Tell us a little about yourself
I was born in 1981 and grew up in Warwickshire. Although I was never religious I always had lots of questions: Why am I here? Was I anything before I was born? What’s the point in all this? Who am I? I also found life quite difficult and was often unhappy. Then, when I was eighteen, I tried meditation and within a short space of time it became the most important thing in my life. It seemed the best way to find happiness and to get answers. About seven months later, after having read about Buddhism and finding a monastery near my home, I decided to become a monk.

What Buddhist tradition do you follow?
I follow the Theravada School of Buddhism, and in particular the Thai Forest Tradition, which was founded at the turn of the Twentieth Century and was driven by a desire to get back to the original teachings and practice of the Buddha. It emphasises strict observance of the monastic rules (such as not using money), the practice of mindfulness and meditation, and the observance of certain challenging practices (such as eating one meal a day).

What types of meditation do Buddhists practise?
There are many meditation techniques and although they might appear quite different they all enable us to concentrate, observe and develop the mind. The most widely practised in Theravada Buddhism is Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), which is suitable for most people. Metta Bhavana (development of loving-kindness) is also very popular and is great for overcoming hatred. Some Buddhists concentrate on repeating certain words in their minds, such as ‘Buddho’ or ‘Arahang’. And there are a number of contemplations, such as Mindfulness of Death, which reminds us to make the most of our time.

Describe one that you practise regularly
Mindfulness of breathing has always been my main practice. After sitting down in the half-lotus position and closing my eyes I’ll usually begin with a brief ‘body scan’. This helps me to notice physical tension and let it go. Once I feel relaxed and alert I’ll focus on my breathing, allowing it to come and go naturally. Some people like to focus on one point where they feel the breath, such as the nose tip, but I like to be mindful of the whole body breathing. When thoughts and feelings interrupt I try to observe them, without reacting to them, so that I can understand their nature. A typical session will last anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour.

What are the challenges of meditation as a practice?
One of the biggest obstacles is the monkey mind! This is the mind that doesn’t want to be still. It jumps all over the place – from thoughts, to feelings, to sounds – like a monkey jumping from tree to tree. There are also the Five Hindrances, which the Buddha often spoke about. They are: desire for pleasure; aversion and anger; dullness and drowsiness; restlessness and worry; and doubt about the teachings and your own ability to reach enlightenment. These hindrances stop the mind from becoming concentrated and clear.

What is the purpose of meditation as a practice?
The purpose of meditation is to calm the mind so that we can see things as they are.  We call the practice of stilling of the mind ‘samatha’, or tranquillity, and the clear seeing ‘vipassana’, or insight. Developing a calm, still mind brings great happiness; but it’s only when we see things clearly that we can be truly free and at peace. When our mind is clear we can see that everything that we experience – our body, feelings, thoughts, and so on – is anicca (impermanent), dukkha (unsatisfactory), and anatta (without self or soul). Once we understand this, our craving and selfishness will disappear and we’ll live at peace. This is what we mean by Enlightenment.

Motorbike Crash

A week or two ago my brother, Tim, witnessed a motorbike accident. It was the morning rush hour in Edgebaston, Birmingham, and he was driving his van along a busy duel-carriageway on his way to a carpentry job. Directly in front of him was a stocky, middle-aged man in full leather gear riding a motorbike. This man was no doubt on his daily run to work, just like everybody else. It was a typically ordinary start to a day that would prove to be, for one person at least, devastating.

As is the case with these things, it happened quite suddenly. A woman driver – with her view of the road obscured by an approaching lorry, but being impatient to cross the main road – pulled out. She didn’t see the motorcyclist. He saw her, but it was far too late and he hurtled full-speed into the side of her car. Bones and rubber, flesh and chrome slammed into glass and steel. The momentum of a body flying at 50 mph was halted instantly and the man’s crumpled, shattered form dropped to the road. He might as well have ridden straight into a brick wall.

Tyres screeched. Car doors were flung open. A dozen horrified people dialled 999. Tim ran over to the man. He was alive, but in a state of shock. He moved around – panicking, delirious, desperate to pull the helmet from his head. But we all know that this must never be done, and he was urged to leave it on until the emergency services arrived. How badly he was hurt nobody could tell. The adrenaline that floods the system during experiences such as this appears to charge broken bodies with an almost superhuman power that causes them to run and breathe and beat. But a trickle of blood was issuing from his nose, and that’s never a good sign.

So the man was left in the care of a few, while the rest walked back to their cars to resume their journeys. We don’t know what injuries that man sustained, or even if he survived. But the image that formed in my mind as my brother recounted his experience was of a slightly overweight, unassuming man in a state of pain and shock so unexpected, so totally unfamiliar, that he personified pure suffering.

His entire world had been ripped apart in a moment. His body and his mind became something else, something alien, something terrifying. Every familiar, reassuring feature of his experience had been wiped out, and all that remained was a blank void of desperation. Such total, complete suffering! And out of nowhere! How could one mind bear the intensity of such an experience? People – healthy, normal people – were close to him, speaking to him, reassuring him – but he was far away. No one or nothing could reach him. This experience was for him, and him alone.

That evening, as I meditated, I visualised that man and radiated thoughts of compassion to him. It was easy, because his suffering had been total. There had been no compromising elements to his experience – no self-pity, exaggeration, or cries for attention – that might have diluted true empathy, empathy that welled up within me as I imagined his helpless, terrified face locked inside that helmet. And as I pictured him, I wanted nothing more than to share his pain. I wanted to take it from him and give him back relief.

And that, in effect, is what I imagined myself doing. I visualised his face and the panic in his eyes, and his confused, desperate movements. I tried to empathise with his inner experience – the wrenching pain, the suffocating fear, the mortal panic – so that I might share some small part of it with him and thereby help to soften it. I wanted him to feel that here was a friend, a friend on whom he could offload some of the burden. And then again I imagined his face: but now it was relaxing – the black fear in his eyes was fading, his panicked movements were slowing. He was letting go of the pain. He was not fighting. He was experiencing some relief.

That cold steel barrier of self dissolves when we open our minds to the suffering of others in this way. Their pain becomes ours and we desire to alleviate it as if it were our own. Then it becomes not a matter of my suffering and their suffering – or even of our suffering – but of suffering and the sincere wish to end it.

The cultivation of this heart-felt, selfless empathy is actually only half of the practice. To go further we need to become a kind of alchemist of the mind, where we take the raw experience of pain – our own and that of others – and transform its energy into compassion and letting go. In order for this to be successful wisdom is required. We must understand that pain is not something to be dismissed or feared or fought, but as misunderstood energy with the potential to be converted.

Painful experience in all its guises is inherently empty; the problem arises when we desire it to be otherwise. When we experience pain the aversion to it is so closely intertwined that the pain appears to be the enemy. There’s depression: we resist. There’s fear: we run. There’s physical pain: we fight. But fighting and running only reinforce and exacerbate these sensations. Reacting gives them a reality they do not truly possess. By letting the pain be – by allowing it, by opening up to it, by putting aside the instinctive, fearful reaction to it – we allow the mind to experience pain for what it is, just as it is. If the painful experience is left alone in this way its sting is removed and its energy harnessed and transformed.

Thus with mindfulness established we draw in our own suffering, and the suffering of others, turn its energy around, and exchange it for loving-kindness, compassion and letting go.

Doing this practice – although deeply moving – appears to be merely hypothetical. The motorcyclist remained completely unaffected as I thought of him. Or did he? In the various Buddhist traditions we do hear accounts of people in distress experiencing some relief and comfort when a person at a distance simultaneously holds them at the centre of a concentrated mind of compassion and loving-kindness. Such is the power of thought. Perhaps this phenomenon can be understood in the same vein as the effect that another’s mental state can have on us when we are in the same room as them: an angry, moody person is like a thunderous black cloud and we feel threatened; a happy person, a ray of sunshine and we feel warmed. How about we regard the world – or the universe for that matter – as a single giant room, one where our focused rays of loving-kindness and compassion can warm people wherever they are?

Well, whatever you think of that, our time spent nurturing the sublime states of empathy and compassion is never wasted. Mind, the Buddha said, precedes all things. Speech and action are merely its flitting shadows. With your thoughts bent on compassion and understanding, with your mind suffused with sympathy and concern, your words and deeds will follow suit, like an obedient pair of tiger cubs trotting along behind their mother. And not only will you be transformed, but so will those beings who come within your sphere of empathy and understanding. You will be a friend, an oasis, a refuge.

And the next time you’re with a terrified man who’s just crashed his motorbike, you will not be afraid, or nervous, or confused: you will hold his hand, look into his eyes, and let him know that his pain is yours.

The 2 Minute Meditator

2 min 22

It’s the classic mistake: we resolve to do something, set the bar too high, smash into it, and give up.

We do it with food: Not one chocolate Hob-Nob will pass my lips ever again! And exercise: I will somersault off my mattress at four every morning and perform one hundred Sun Salutations! And writing blogs: I will write at least one post a day, and always have ten in reserve! And Hardcore Himalayan Hermit meditation programmes: I will meditate for three hours every morning before work, and every evening before bed, sitting full-lotus… Without moving… Or scratching… Or breathing…

Now I am exaggerating a little here for dramatic effect, but I don’t think that these examples are too far off the mark. We tend to make these grand determinations, without much thought for how realistic they are. The enthusiasm for transforming our sherbet-slurping, sofa-slumping, monkey-minded selves grips every atom, obliterating common-sense, and we leap out of our armchairs and leg it to the nearest Holland and Barrett to spend all our money on spirulina and Jane Fonda exercise manuals.

Of course we know that we need to eat healthily, and burn at least as many calories as we consume, and that it’s good to write a blog on Buddhist practice. And we also know that if we really want to change ourselves and be free of suffering a solid meditation practice is imperative. But the need to Do Something often becomes an all-or-nothing decision. Then we either do nothing, or we dive head-first into an elaborate, unsustainable scheme, only to crawl back out not long afterwards looking sheepish and feeling thoroughly disheartened. Thus we find ourselves once again slumped in the sofa – Coke in one hand, pizza in the other – while the X-Factor sucks all clarity and calm from our minds.

It’s like we’ve been zooming along on our very own habit motorway. It’s wide, and smooth, and easy driving. But it’s a bit meaningless, and we’re not happy. And so, seized by a desire for change, we veer sharply to the left. We crash through the metal safety barrier, plunge into the undergrowth, and tear through the snagging bushes, trees and brambles. But it’s all so difficult and unfamiliar. ‘Damn this changing lark!’, we think, ‘I’m going back to my motorway!’

But what about the slip roads, and roundabouts, and other motorways? There are plenty of those to choose from. Changing direction doesn’t have to be dramatic. These new roads may not at first be familiar, but they are gentle, and the views can be great, and they often lead to better motorways – motorways that are as smooth as the first, but which are composed of skilful and meaningful habits that will lead us on towards enlightenment.

So change doesn’t have to be a violent revolution. Revolutions have a habit of fizzling out and giving way to the old order. If change is gradual, and systematic, then it will put down roots and gradually become the norm.

I should note that once in while a dramatic change may be required. Never mind bashing through the safety barrier; we’re talking about rearranging life’s tectonic plates. This kind of change heralds initial friction and uncertainty, as well as deep long-term alterations to our personal landscape. That’s what going forth into the monk-hood, for instance, is all about; Siddhattha Gotama did it over 2,500 years ago, and it’s what men and women have been doing ever since. You will also feel the need to shake up things in your own life from time to time. Perhaps you can no longer tolerate the shaky ethics of your employer and you decide to leave; or you move abroad; or you end a damaging relationship. Even just establishing a dedicated Buddhist practice and keeping the precepts in your particular circumstances (like pressure from friends and family) can be a bit of an earthquake in itself.

But, aside from these examples, for the most part we try to find a balance. We eat our sprouts and the odd piece of chocolate; we do a dozen Sun Salutations at a sensible time in the morning; we write a blog post every one or two weeks. And we establish a meditation practice that is effective, flexible and, most importantly, sustainable.

Now it’s none of my business how many bags of crisps you eat, or what your heart-rate is when you’re puffing and panting up the stairs. But I have two suggestions about meditation. Firstly: Do it every day. And secondly: Aim to meditate for two minutes.

Two minutes? Yes. If we determine to meditate (or exercise, or write, etc.) for just two minutes then we bypass the most difficult part of achieving the thing itself: starting. Two minutes is nothing, and so we think nothing of it. ‘Oh, I’ve got a few minutes to spare’, we say to ourselves, ‘I might as well do my two minute meditation.’

The Two Minute Rule actually requires us to meditate for at least two minutes. That’s the minimum. So, before we start, we say to ourselves that if, after two minutes, we want to stop, then we will. That’s fine. There is no compulsion to continue. If, however, we reach two minutes and find ourselves in the groove, we are free to simply carry on. It’s an achievable daily practice that becomes as easy as checking our email. And just as habitual.

And that’s the point. It’s not so much about the act of meditating for two minutes as it is about establishing a habit. Meditating for two minutes will of course help you, even though the mind may not settle much during that time. Just the act of pausing, of breaking the momentum, of stopping the snowball of stress and tangle of thoughts from squashing you, is a powerful and fruitful practice. Taking those two minutes out to meditate will refresh you, even if you spend the whole time wrestling with your errant thoughts. But in the background a habit will be quietly forming; and habits are difficult to break.

And here we see how the Two Minute Rule is really a decoy, a Trojan Horse of Transformation. Because before long you will have established a daily meditation practice. And, what’s more, you will be consistently mowing down the 120 second marker. You’ll naturally extend it to five minutes, or ten, or fifteen, and you will hardly notice. Let’s refer to Newton’s Law of Motion to prove it: ‘An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion…’ Once you’ve started, it’s actually difficult to stop.

And you will start, because it’s only for two minutes.

 

Beyond Belief

Buddha Head Profile

Religion, I feel fortunate enough to say, was never a part of my home life when growing up. My mother, although refreshingly open-minded, had far more pressing concerns: there were fish-fingers to fry and muddy football kits to wash. And my father (who lived elsewhere) not only looks a little like Richard Dawkins but has views and a tongue to match – though he never once tried to persuade me one way or the other.

My primary school, on the other hand, was Church of England. And so that meant the usual humdrum of hymns, church outings, nativity plays, and even a cantankerous old Welsh pianist who, during choir practice, would threaten to have our guts for garters if we failed to squeak to his satisfaction. I never saw any intestines dangling around his shins, so I assume it remained an unfulfilled fantasy.

Anyway, since none of this was reinforced at home the religious indoctrination slid off me like a nob of butter from a warm knife. My mind thus remained free to wander the hallways of thought, asking and questioning and probing as it pleased, with no restrictions, no ‘KEEP OUT’ notices, and certainly no reference to an all-seeing, all-knowing God.

That’s not to say I didn’t try believing in God. I did. Once. I have a vague memory from when I was about eight of standing in my bedroom and asking for help. But I quickly gave it up as a bad job and returned to my Lego castle. Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough. Perhaps he was on the other line. Perhaps my request that he help with finding the last little plastic brick that completed the draw-bridge didn’t meet connection criteria. Or perhaps I instinctively knew that it was a waste of time and that the answers to the existential questions (and locations of important Lego pieces) are not to be found in dogmatic belief systems that are devoid of evidence.

And so I quickly found that I was an atheist. At weddings or funerals (memories of the two slide into one for some reason…) I would sooner have gone naked wearing only a red bow-tie than have closed my eyes as the vicar conversed with the Almighty on behalf of us all. And I would argue about Jesus with my grandmother, who would then pull out her trump card and suggest that I, as an unbeliever, stop receiving Christmas presents. Ha!

But being an atheist was not about rejecting Christmas presents or adopting another viewpoint; it was an act of rebellion. I hated being told what to believe, especially when there was no evidence. I wanted to know, but I wanted to find out the answers for myself. And I wanted to question, without being told when to stop.

Science at secondary school always left me cold, too. It just didn’t relate to my actual experience of being alive and aware. And the little knowledge I did acquire made no difference whatsoever to my dissatisfaction with life. It was all about Petri dishes and Bunsen burners and Thingamebob’s Second Law of Thermowotsits. It was second-hand knowledge and had no bearing on how I understood – in an experiential way – myself and the world.

Of course the study and advancement of Science is essential, and often fascinating (I am partial to a little astronomy myself – all those light-years and super-massive black holes boggle the mind; and quantum physics is intriguing). Through Science diseases get cured, planes get in the air, and atom bombs get developed (oops). But it’s all so far removed from actual first-person immediate experience. Who am I? I don’t mean the ‘I’ reflected in the mirror – the cells and atoms and chains of DNA – but the ‘I’ asking this question. The thought. The awareness. I think all of my questions boiled down to this one, and science was looking the other way.

After the Dark Night of High School (the less said the better) my inquisitive tendencies crawled back out of hiding and I found myself captivated by the nature of mind and its potential. I devoured books on philosophy, anthropology and mysticism (with a sprinkling of an illegal chemical or two), and it all seemed to point to the fact that our reality – our world – is to a large extent determined by our minds. And so it seemed that any attempts to understand the nature of reality that did not focus on the mind missed the point. After all, what else do we actually have apart from our mind and the experiences fashioned by it? Furthermore, it struck me that this knowledge was not to be gained from text books or holy books or any kind of books, but through direct personal experience. But how was this to be achieved?

Luckily I found my truth-seeker’s tool of choice while perusing the shelves in my local library. It was the practice of Buddhist meditation. This simple exercise awoke something within me, something which had been present all along but which I had never stopped to look at. It awoke the knowing aspect of the mind – that which is aware but which is not part of the myriad thoughts and mental states that splash through our muddy heads, and which is therefore able to observe and investigate the nature of experience. These new-found meditative ventures were simultaneously satisfying and exciting. There was pleasure and there was a sense of discovery. Questions were beginning to be answered and suffering was easing its grip.

So I had found a method that requires the suspension of all belief and preconceptions, a method which regards the mind as the ultimate laboratory, a method which concerns the training of the mind so that it is able to directly perceive the nature of reality. But its focus is also the experience of suffering; indeed, in Buddhism it’s the very problem of not understanding the nature of things that is the root cause of suffering.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. These are just words, and grand and exciting ones at that. You may have suffering and questions in equal measure but no amount of nodding your head at sentences such as these will solve them. The journey begins and ends on the meditation cushion, and so it is what we do on that piece of cotton and kapok that matters.