Body

Interlude to meditation series: Humanity or Human or Humane or what?

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Bear with me please. This post goes in a number of directions but each is linked and important. It is also representative of an Italian rhetorical style which begins with a good deal of preamble before making the central point at the end. This is a writing style that requires a degree of faith on the part of the reader, and is certainly unfashionable in today’s culture of bite-size nuggets and stimulation triggering.

I’ll assume that if you make it to the end, you are a thinker, and if not, enjoy your social media fix and close the door on your way off this page.

Starting off: down with that sort of thing

When I examined my own set of practices in the last years, I was often been brought back to the flurry of insults thrown at certain meditation traditions, teachers and practices by the non-Speculative Buddhism chaps. I also recall a frequent utterance made that was aimed at claims of results or pro-positive feelings that might emerge from them: “So what?” they would ask. Was this a question, a sneer, or an expression of disinterest on their part? Perhaps it was a mixture of all three. Either way, I took such brusk commentary as a useful reminder to avoid repeating three mistakes; using meditation as a retreat from the world, assuming it was obvious that meditation was always good, and that meditation was what it was being defined as by my fellow Buddhists. Since those days, I have been concerned with the idea that meditation techniques and the framework used to discuss, understand and expand on them be connected more closely with immanence and the non Buddhist world of knowledge and insight, and that the concept of immanence not be taken for granted or encoded within Buddhist lingo. What does it mean to be present to life? What does it mean to be present to the world? What does it mean to engage with something called the present? We take so much for granted; we take so much on blind faith. How often do we stop to ask questions of the exultations that beckon us on into practice? How often do we challenge what can seem so natural? These were just some of the questions that challenged me and brought back a sense of excitement into thinking about meditation, spirituality and Buddhism anew.

To question your assumptions is an essential aspect of practice. This is quite different from forming yourself into the image of a good Buddhist. Questions can radically upset what we take as given. How do you feel if someone undermines everything you hold dear? How do you feel if someone exposes your practice and view of yourself as a practitioner as fraudulent? When our assumptions are challenged and the normalisation of a personally held view is prodded vigorously, typical reactions tend to ensue. They usually include the famous three: retreat, avoidance, or defence. How many are capable of opening to the critique at hand instead, and accepting it may destroy what you hold dear and that this may be exactly what you need in your life? Who is willing to see critique as an opportunity rather than a personal attack in this age of outrage and victimhood? Surely humility involves being willing to be wrong and shown what is hidden behind our ignorance. To be shaken by the world is an invaluable opportunity for genuine transformation. It’s a shame most of us are culturally trained to avoid it. It’s even worse when we bullshit ourselves into justifying our excuses for cowardice in excusing ourselves for disengaging when life invites us to step up.

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Post-traditional Buddhism: getting practical

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A common request from those travelling around the Buddhist periphery looking for alternatives to traditional Buddhism is for innovators and critics to provide practical solutions and responses to the theoretical critique being made. I myself have been one of those who at various times in the past has asked for something practical to be done with all the theory and it behoves me now to do my part to bridge the gap between theory and practice but also remind listeners and readers that theory is itself the child of pragmatism and always results from action; the action of thought, contemplation, reflection, analysis, questioning, doubting and so on. Theory, therefore, will continue to be a cornerstone of practical, pragmatic approaches to engaging with Buddhism anew and makes up a great deal of the practical side of engaging with Buddhism from a post-traditional perspective.

Emphasising the role of theory is essential as one of the important contributing factors that has allowed Western Buddhism to give rise to its more problematic facets is the general US culture of anti-intellectualism that has accompanied the rise of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and now Donald Trump: I know I shouldn’t, but I simply couldn’t resist referencing these key figures involved in the dumbing down of American culture. Having been the Empire of the last century, The States has obviously had a very strong influence on Europe and the rest of the world and this includes not only its political and economic exports and political ideology but also in its exportation of cultural forms and styles, so that, although Europe generally does not suffer from the American suspicion of intelligence, nuance, subtlety and sophistication, it has accepted, in the world of Western Buddhism at least, a creeping form of anti-intellectualism, and in the world of the spiritual but not religious, an obsession with first person subjectivity and the cult of feeling. Starting out with the practical business of thinking, therefore, is an essential initial step because, as our more intellectual readers are all too familiar, theory, in the form of ideas and beliefs in particular, underlies, shapes and colours all of the practical stuff that our more down-to-earth brothers and sisters like to front.

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Collapse and Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain (Final)

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This is the last part of the Dark Mountain piece, which as I read it again after so long, appears rather forced. It reminds me of how much further I need to go in developing my writing skills and I am afraid to say that I am guilty of letting enthusiasm get the better of me at times, with this piece being one of those occasions. It is different from what came before in that it offers a couple of suggestions on experimental practices, so, read on at your own peril. As always, the link to Dark Mountain can be found here and click here for part one and here for part two.

A Possible Response

A clear theme that runs through to this point is the great gap. At the heart of our environmental crisis is the great divide. We are not able to feel our way across boundaries into primal modes of feeling the great other, and feeling with each other, and therefore we are constantly disconnected and alienated from our shared depths. We are confused on how to mate, not through sexual encounters, but through hiving at a level that bridges humans collectively to their environment as equals. The core principles in combating apathy and disengagement are empathic merging, compassion and care. I like to sum these up as a robust intimacy. Intimacy can be anchored onto externals, but it is best found in co-emergence. To be intimate with a process based lifeworld is to move within and through the spaces we inhabit with feeling and perceptual openness and receptivity. It does not imply being lovey-dovey, cosy and cushti, cute and nice. Intimacy is a feature of combat too. Ask any regular aficionado of boxing or MMA and most will speak of how fighting breaks through masks, strips away pretence, connects you at a raw level and sparks bonds.
The alienation spoken of here is painful. Some are born seemingly more sensitive to others and suffer it more, but there is no denying that our enforced detachment from each other into unfulfilling ritualised social practices harms. The wounds are collective and born by all those who switch off to their fellow species’ suffering, or who never come to touch wounds, or the wounded, with care. It is no wonder that we are so unable to feel. To switch onto the immensity of pain and suffering across all the animal and insect species is too much to bear. We must start somewhere though, because the stifling cocoon of self-preservation is really just a dead end. I see this work in very simple terms. It is a matter of maturity. Do we wish to remain infantilised or eternal teens, and avoid responsibility, or do we wish to accept that it is up to us to find relevant social practices in a changing world? As many of the first nation peoples ask, are we capable of being responsible for what happens to the next seven generations? Our governments and leaders certainly are not. Such a question does open a vast terrain of thought regarding duty, commitment and choice.

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Compassionate action: documentary on the how

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Often a question arises, what does it actually look like, to enact compassion, to express and live Buddhist principles in a human life? Stories come down to us from historical sources, tales repeated and retold that illustrate miraculous events in a far off land in even further time periods. These stories were most likely put together to inspire followers, but for some of us modern day folks, they may fail to do just that, in fact, they may more likely do the opposite and leave us cold. Stories are simply stories after all.

Finding inspirational stories these days, we might choose to look to other sources. Charity workers, teachers, that rare political figure whose ideals produce real change, a scientist perhaps that invents a cure for something? Others are inspired by current Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh. Danniel Dennet, Michael Foucault  and other great thinkers might be someone else’s hero with their challenges to thought, belief and shared illusion.

I just got done watching an immensely moving documentary that impressed me very much and the story told is a true one. The events you see in the film are still taking place today with the quiet dedication of two remarkable people. It tells the tale of Phra Khru, an ex-policeman, ex-Thai Boxing champ, and current abbot in Thailand who takes in orphaned and abandoned children and raises them along with a nun, Khun Mae Ead. Both of these characters are exceptional examples of compassionate action: the real one, not the pretend super Buddha type. They gift life skills to kids and teach them how to live, take care of themselves and each other. It is a spectacular thing to see.

Tough love is how the two define their approach to these kids and one can only remain impressed and touched by the lack of grandeur, self adulation and reference to Buddhism that the two display as they quietly get on with changing these kids’ lives for the better. Buddhism is there in prayers in Thai, some meditation, but it is expressed in its most meaningful form in the genuine heartfelt prayers Phra Khru expresses towards these kids and it seems that they act, rather than as Buddhist prayers per se, as form for the depth of care and sincere wishes this man has for these lost kids.

I am often challenged by the question of how to care, how to do something that might be meaningful and helpful in this world beyond being a decent father, teacher and husband. Phra Khru manages to provide an example not through abstract holiness, but down to Earth realness and I cannot help but feel deep gratitude for this man and woman making a difference out there.

Highly recommended. Follow the link if you want to know more.

http://www.buddhaslostchildren.com/home

The Eightfold Path: Right Effort

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Getting started

Getting away from the computer screen, unplugging our ears from an iPad, putting the beer back in the fridge, and settling in for twenty or thirty minutes meditation requires effort. There’s no getting away from it. Modern technology, and in particular the internet, promises instant gratification, satisfaction and stimulation. Meditation does not. Perhaps meditation is the antithesis of the internet? Meditation brings us to where we are and slows everything down so we can see clearly, so we can feel deeply, and gain insight into our human condition. It provides a space where we let go of indulging the impulsive desire to absorb more and more data, to open a browser for the umpteenth time, to track down the latest video on YouTube, the latest track on iTunes and surf ever onwards to further, new stimulation. And effort? How unfashionable. Why pay when you can download for free, why leave the house to go to the bookshop when almost everything is freely available within that dark screen of limitless magical images.  
I have always been interested in the world as mirror, as macrocosm of our microcosm, and in this regard the internet is a wonderful manifestation of our collective ability to constantly distract ourselves with busyness and with seemingly important and vital tasks, which simply cannot wait. The internet has given rise to an obsession with instant updating, and a new form of anxiety at the thought of not being in touch and digitally connected. But what are we connecting to and how real is it? How does this new relationship with data, bits and bytes absorb our energies and efforts? We have created a new experience of reality based on immediacy where waiting and delay have vanished. The internet and computer technology may increasingly give rise to artificial experiences that provide instant gratification of desires that would otherwise be complex and perhaps impossible to meet in the world outside the confines of digital screens.
In the world of flesh and blood, of earth and stone, effort is almost always required to create or achieve anything meaningful and worthwhile. Long-term investment and commitment produces results and rewards that cannot be rushed. Whiskey and fine wine are aged and better for being so and the best of human qualities are the same. Maturity and wisdom require long-term commitment to growth and a concerted investment in entering the depths of human experience. The culture of instant gratification and access will undoubtedly change younger generations’ relationship with knowledge, entertainment and stimulation of the five senses in unforeseen ways and it is likely that many will indeed be positive. Will the pendulum swing and the value of real flesh and bones experience becomes equally attractive again as a counter-balance to noses glued to screens? Who can tell? Much of this new wave of being is caught up in a great deal of physical separation and isolation; cinema attendance is in decline and book shops are closing down on a monthly basis. It is quicker and easier to watch a film at home and order books from Amazon. The raw meat and bones experience of dynamic tension that marks a more complete approach to living in the world can only take form in relationship with the phenomenal world with all its messiness and paradox, and progress in engaged practice can only come about through a concerted and dedicated effort to transform our experience with matter. A digital version is simply not enough.

Mindfulness of the Body

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In contemporary society we generally have a very dysfunctional relationship with our bodies. We treat our bodies badly, we often eat wrongly, push our bodies excessively, or fail to give our body the degree of care and attention it needs. Addiction is incredibly widespread and nail biting, skin picking, excessive gum chewing, and other nervous habits, are all signs of a dysfunctional connection to the physical environment in which we partake. 
Then, added on to this, we have all of the distorted images of the body given to us by advertising and consumerist culture, by celebrities, comics, and pornography; a mass of illusions of how we are supposed to appear and present ourselves to the world. We often look at our bodies in a very distorted manner, or even refuse to look at our naked form out of fear, or shame. The commodification of the body and the falsification of body images have the function of collectively disassociating people from the simplicity and immediacy of how their bodies really are and how wonderful they are in their diversity. The general obsession with external image often causes us to seek to present our bodies in specific postures, poses and shapes. How often do you either strike a model’s pose when you look at yourself in the mirror, or refuse to look honestly and deeply at your naked body without tightening up or judging it? These are all aspects of the collective baggage that we carry around and filter our perception of our body through.
Because the body is the starting place for mindfulness and because of the complexity of the issues I have just laid out, it is important to realise that mindfulness is a very rich and profound pursuit of re-engaging with experience based on very new rules. Mindfulness is not just being present, but it is also looking deeply at things to see how they really are and how we are relating to them. In this sense it is truly a path of freedom, because if we are brave enough to go all the way with it, it can free us from the mess we are in collectively and individually with regard to our bodies. 
What follows are the seven factors of mindfulness. They immediately illustrate a more complete and holistic picture of deep mindfulness practice. They also show us that mindfulness is not just something you do on a cushion in a safe, quiet space, but is rather an adventure that is embarked on that can result in the radical change and gaining of freedom that I have pointed to in several previous posts. Below is my own non-traditional wording of the seven factors.
Seven factors of Mindfulness
1.      Being present and deeply engaged with what we are doing
2.      Bridging the gap to experience: non-judgement & intimacy
3.      Appreciation for experience: acknowledging & honouring your life as an unfolding process
4.      Relieving of unsatisfactoriness & reducing separation: feeling connected & part of it all
5.      Looking deeply: penetrating experience to see clearly what is real and important, releasing our natural intuitiveness 
6.      Gaining insight & direct understanding through being grounded in experience & fully open
7.      Transformation: growth, healing, opening, freedom