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.
Speech is energy in motion and it feeds movement. When we are mindless in our speech, it tends to go out and feed ongoing patterns of fixed referencing that define the roles we end up in, and identify with. These roles are multiple; an interwoven network of positions that emerge through creative belief manufacturing, the stabilising of dependable feelings, the fabrication of pre-set emotional modes and the fixation of linguistic patterns that affirm our stance in relationship to the fundamental symbols that make up our personal world in all its fictitious glory.
Speech is energy in motion. It feeds movement, and therefore, can lead us out of our ongoing patterns of fixed referencing, and release us from roles that are no longer ‘comfortable’, or helpful. Speech can be used to seed intent into our fields of experience, giving growth to budding, and then strengthening, awareness and new perspectives. The choice is ours. Do we wish to be imprisoned in half-asleep living, or wake up and step outside into a more authentic experience of our lives? There are risks of course, and it’s not really easy, but if you have tasted deep dissatisfaction with the fictitious illusions that makes up so-called normal, then you might just be ready to take a plunge into unknown depths.
Taking on the dialogue
Right speech is one of the easiest of the Eightfold path elements to relate to. Why? Because we are constantly engaging in speech, whether externally through conversation with others, or, through our internal dialogue, which is the inexhaustible conversation we sustain with ourselves. Speech provides ample material for us to work with as meditators and in order to pursue more constructive speech, the instructions are simple. The challenge for us, however, is to make the instructions fit our world, and our ongoing and unfolding experience. For Right Speech to become a path and a strategy for change, its basic fourfold ethical basis has to be applied with discipline and consistency.
Firstly, we need to experience and recognise personally how we actively engage in the four misuses of our voice, as well as get clearer on the intent that is behind our habitual speech patterns. As early Buddhism displays, lists can be very useful. Making your own list on when, why and how can be very useful as a basis for further action. In order to arrive at the point where these patterns become clearly visible, we need to continue in our practice of meditation so that awareness increases, and so that we can bring awareness into dialogues. Then, we simply need to ask ourselves some pertinent questions and leave enough space for honest and frank answers to emerge. The following might be a good start;
‘Buddhist ethics are based on the notion of harmony’
Introduction; intent and view
Falsification and fabrication lie at the heart of wrong speech. Together with destructiveness and cruelty they make up the dark edges that mark unmindful and unhelpful speech. Truth and authenticity instead are integral features of Right Speech along with modes of communication that engender understanding and harmony. In practising the Eightfold path, Right Speech marks a clear step off of the meditation cushion and into action. It marks a deliberate engagement with the world and therefore it contains a strong ethical dimension in order to give rise to a more responsible relationship with the world. As with any facet of spiritual development, it is useful to have some guidelines to keep us on the straight and narrow and assist us in avoiding potential pitfalls that may accompany the process of opening and awakening to a fuller and freer experience of life. Right Speech along with Right Action reminds us that our actions count. Maturity is a key theme and however evolved a person might seem to be, or feel themselves to be, maturity is an ongoing process of becoming more responsible and more responsive to the ongoing conditions we face.
Whether we are capable of carrying Right Speech into our day-to-day lives is dependent on our ability to align our communication with a form of Right View and Right Intention; both discussed in earlier posts. In order to discover more authentic and transparent modes of communication we need to establish a clear and workable intent, which if we are Buddhist, should ideally emerge from the desire to end confusion and suffering, as well as reduce our contribution to the global mess in all its myriad forms. Even if you’re not a Buddhist, such an intent is noble and perhaps worthy of your attention all the same. Starting with more modest intents is ok too and a simple wish to be less argumentative is a fine place to start.
If you’re motivated to work with your speech, know that a clear, self-generated and personalised intent to ‘cut the crap’ will be paramount in creating any lasting change to indulgent habits. Habits are by their nature impulsive, changing them will require discipline and commitment. Both qualities developed on the cushion.
The two primary elements in approaching this practice are;
1. Working with our actual experience
2. Deciding what is helpful?
Any subsequent elaboration of Right Speech would be well placed in relation to these two considerations in a pragmatic model. Right Speech continues in the way of dual activity having at its centre the renunciation of specific forms of speech and a dedication to actively using speech in a proactive and unitive way. These are the outer disciplines.
‘(An) unchanging, unitary, autonomous self is non-existent. Our existence is nominal. Devoid of an owned, inherent nature.’ Allan Wallace.
‘All our anxieties and difficulties come from our inability to see the true face, or true sign of things.’ Thich Nhat Hanh
If Buddhism denies a permanent self, then how do we deal with the issue of identity? Who are we really? What is the basis of our sense of being ‘a somebody’ that does indeed appear to exist in the world – to have relationships, work, eat, sleep, piss about on Facebook and read Buddhist books? In Wallace’s words we are informed that there is not a permanent, fixed self; yet a self of some kind does exist, even if it is simply seen at first as the process of moving and shifting reference points, preferences, relationships and roles.
Initial questions in response to the teachings of no-self tend to emerge from the insecurity, doubt and fear that arises in response to the idea that no-self =‘I don’t exist’, when you quite clearly do. You’re reading this, right? Underneath such potential insecurities is the existential fear of non-existence, of being nothing and therefore believing somehow that there is no meaning in our existence. This is a fear I have experimented personally and I am fully aware of how unnerving it can be. However, no-self does not mean that we are merely a mass of biological processes, a cog in the wheel of organic life. Such perspectives on existence constitute a form of Nihilism, which is one of the great mistaken views in Buddhism. So, we can relax knowing that at least in Buddhism, this is not the intended meaning of no-self.
The questions should perhaps be then, not whether you exist, but ‘How do I exist?’ and ‘If there is no permanent central core within me somewhere, then what am I really?’ Discovering that a solid, core self is non-existent should not lead us to deny what we do wake up to each day. Our lives stand before us each morning. A tangible world that starts with our bed, the walls of our bedroom, the home that we inhabit, the street below, the feelings and sensations of warmth and of cold, and so on. The Buddhist path is not about denying life and existence. I like to think of it as the establishing of new rules of engagement and enquiry outside of our conditioned, patterned, personal history and collective blindness in order to see and experience things as they are, unconditioned. We are usually so driven to find final, definite answers that we often lose a sense of what the real issue is. Does it matter what we believe? Sure. Does it matter which position we adopt? Certainly. But do we need to be so concerned with getting the ‘right’ philosophical, religious or psychological belief, the final answer, to define ultimate reality or the end game of existence and life? No. At least I don’t believe so. To do so might simply be another mental construct we use to define our sense of self and position ourselves against, or for, a particular side in the endless debates about the true and ultimate nature of things. It is much more useful and relevant to explore directly the mechanisms within you that shape the reality you experience and live. In this way your personal experience takes precedence over the adoption of particular philosophical stances and the idea of no-self becomes an open invitation to explore the ramifications of such a possibility on your life, not only on the meditation cushion, but also in the moments in-between.
The fourth and final Foundation of Mindfulness is of phenomena. You might be asking yourself right now, ‘But aren’t the body, the feelings and mental activity phenomena too?’ and you would be right. This is an indicator of the way that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness function as progressive steps of integration of awareness within the totality of our individual experience. The idea that these Four Foundations exist separately is false. They are simply steps or stages of working with specific aspects of our experience. As with the previous three Foundations, Mindfulness of phenomena includes not only a resultant and integrative dimension, but also an active, volitional path of techniques and material to work through and integrate. And the key term is integration: when we have full awareness of the body, we have awareness of feeling and phenomena and the quality of mental states too. We break down perception into specific perceptual frames first, and then we build up an integrated perceptual outlook that is inclusive and cognisant of the interdependent nature of all phenomena within our field of perception. We work through the foundations individually because our experience of each of them is polluted by conditioning, patterned and therefore partial living, and our gross and subtle conceptualisation of experience.
With Mindfulness of the mind we are learning to recognise and acknowledge the whole range of mental formations as they arise in our experience. Feelings were defined as qualitative sensations of experience and are mental formations in themselves, but what constitutes mental formations exactly? They are the content and activity of the mind. The mind itself doesn’t exist as a separate entity, or permanent fixture, so we can only really know the mind by being conscious of its content. Consciousness allows us to be aware of mental formations. The mind then is understood as the flow of mental activity which is subject to frequent change.
The idea of the mind and consciousness can become complicated rather quickly and lead one down the road of philosophising. As these blog posts are primarily concerned with the experiential dimension of practice and enquiry, let’s accept for now that there is consciousness and there is content and that mindfulness here means bringing awareness and insight to the latter, which I have placed into categories below;
1.Mental processes; thinking, imagining, fantasising, judging, reasoning, desiring, remembering, and forgetting, and so on. It includes mental formations such as beliefs, ideas, doubts, and views and more.
2.The quality of attention and awareness; sharpness, drowsiness, sleepiness, distraction, concentrated, unconcentrated, open, curious, disinterested, scattered, cramped, aware, unaware, etc.
3.Mental/emotional states; jealousy, irritation, annoyance, boredom, bliss, delusion, aversion,desire to harm, desire to help, excitement, etc.
4.Emotional states; love, anger, fear, courage, empathy, compassion, etc.
Basically anything that you can define within personal experience is a mental formation of some form or other. Each has its own distinct form and flavour. None of them constitute a self or me and none of them are permanent. They have a duration and their intensity waxes and wanes. Some can be considered as explicitly positive and negative. Some are preferable to others. Some we covet and others we push away, or may not have met yet. In practising mindfulness the content is not so important. What matters is how you relate to it. The 7 factors of mindfulness remain the same as does our need to apply them to each of these phenomena as they arise in our everyday experience.
‘Feeling is present at every moment of experience.’ Bikkhu Bodhi
What does it mean to feel? We often take feeling for granted, never really taking the time to investigate what is really going on when we say we feel this or that. We often fail to appreciate the richness, complexity, and also potential simplicity of the process of feeling, and yet, feeling marks each and every experience we have, have ever had, and will ever have. Our beliefs, ideas, self-image, are all infused with particular ranges of feelings and we use our feelings to judge whatever takes place both within and without as good, bad, or unimportant. For many, feelings are the gateway to truth, to authentic understanding and self-expression, whilst for others, especially my grandparents’ generation, feelings are unimportant, a form of self-indulgence, perhaps even weakness.
Feeling leads to the formation of emotions, but feelings are not emotions. Feelings are the sensations we experience, and for mindfulness practice, they are the quality of sensation in the body and can be labelled simply as positive, negative, or neutral. This threefold category is traditionally applied to practising mindfulness of the feelings. That is we use our attention, our awareness, to observe how we have an impulsive tendency to react to feeling by labelling it as positive, negative, or neutral causing us to act accordingly. Feeling is rarely allowed to be as it is; instead it is subjectively made important, or unimportant. We charge feelings with meaning. Taking interpretation of what is felt as a determining factor in how we choose to go forward and act. Feelings actually function as an elaborate code through which we forge the direction our lives take.
Ultimately, separation between body, feelings, emotions, states and phenomena doesn’t exist. One flows into the other. They are profoundly interrelated. These categories though act as convenient method for defining experience and working with its more recognisable dimensions. The body feels for example, or rather we feel through the body, and emotions are felt within the body, and are accompanied by feeling. Emotions and other mental states are within the body, infused with feeling and directly related to phenomena. Our feelings are stimulated by the physical in the form of our body and the ‘external’ world. So, an important understanding to make clear here is that these four realms of experience are really not separate.