Out of Control

What makes Dukkha dukkha? If you’re not familiar with the word, ‘dukkha’ is a Pali word that was used by the Buddha to articulate a sense of dis-ease, of suffering even; a sense that something is not right in our world or in our being. Dukkha can be a state of internal agitation and stress usually in relation to not getting the things we want and getting the things we don’t want. Everyone’s life has things in it we don’t want. It’s natural that we want to be happy, to feel satisfied and for things to go our way. We don’t want to lose our job, our health, or our marriage. We want to be agreed with or we want a vigorous debate. Our desires can be quite contradictory but one thing the Buddha was very clear on; wanting or desiring creates dukkha.

Life involves suffering, there is no way around that. The Buddha said ‘birth is suffering, sickness is suffering, old age and death are dukkha’; if we are born into human form at some point we will suffer. But how we relate to that suffering and dis-ease determines whether we suffer.

VUCA is an acronym I’ve come across recently that I think connects to Dukkha. VUCA draws on leadership theory developed in the 1980’s in the US and is a way of describing and becoming conscious of situations that are Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It has been used in the US Military, and other high-risk occupations such as fire-fighters, paramedics, and police. What these situations have in common is a potent mixture of threat and danger amidst highly charged and complex conditions, but alongside periods of routine or even boredom and waiting around.

I think VUCA goes quite a way to helping our understanding of the dynamics of Dukkha; it lays out some deep truths about ourselves and our world which can help us recognise some of our core desires. Our outer and inner worlds, at times, (or a lot of the time) can seem volatile with the ground swept out from under us. Things are not always clear; our own minds, let alone other peoples, can be mystifying! Our own indecisiveness or our relationship to uncertainty can create stress for us. And our world and the choices available to us have become increasingly complex; what is the best thing to do? How can we make sense of different possibilities?

Thinking in terms of VUCA can help objectify what we often react to and are confused by. They can be additional labels that help us get curious about why we’re suffering or even experiencing slight dis-ease or uncomfortableness that’s often present (for me anyway). It can help us accept that complexity or uncertainty are natural parts of the ups and downs of life. And reveal the link between dukkha and craving; how suffering comes about through wanting to change things that are beyond our control. When we recognise the forces that are way beyond our control, and we can observe the constant attempts to try to control we let go a little.

We get a stronger sense of the futility of seeking stability etc in a world which is inherently changing. We see how the tight grip of desiring it to be otherwise makes us suffer. And we come to an understanding, through our direct experiencing, that peace comes from a deep acceptance of things just as they are.

As the great Thai meditation master Ajaan Chah said:

“If you let go a little you will have a little happiness,

If you let go a lot you will have a lot of happiness,

If you let go completely you will be free.”

PS – I’m now on Page 359 of the Anguttara Nikaya….

Online Retreat – Freedom from Clinging

I’m excited to be offering our third annual on-line retreat, running in the post-Christmas lull and seeing in the New Year together.

This online retreat is for anyone who has previously participated in a week or more of retreat with me. It will be led by myself with support from Vajrapriya.

The retreat will run for six full days from Wednesday 28th December to Monday 2nd January. There will be input, led meditations, and the opportunity to ask questions and talk about your practice. In the evenings there will be integrated ritual elements, including a longer evening to mark the New Year.

The invitation is to really give yourself the time and space to be on retreat, letting awareness gain some momentum that can support the growth of understanding and wisdom. However, the practice also lends itself to being taken into any activities or responsibilities that you need to attend to.

Freedom from Clinging

The focus of the retreat will be on investigating the nature of the mind that clings or grasps. The retreat will initially refresh the central principles of awareness and right view, and explore the difference between concepts and awareness. After that we’ll focus on using our direct experience to notice how the mind clings, what it clings to, and how we can release from clinging and therefore from suffering.

We will be looking to access a quality of awareness imbued with spaciousness and loving-kindness, helping depth and understanding to pervade the practice.

The retreat is offered on a dana (donation) basis. I’ll say more about this during the retreat. All I need to say now is, please don’t let a lack of money stop you from coming: whatever you can give is fine.

Programme

The programme each day will be:

SessionGMT / UTC
007.30 – 08.15Unled meditation (not day 1)
110.30 – 12.30Main input and led meditation
217.00 – 18.00Light input and led meditation
320.00 – 21.00Meditation and ritual

There will be optional un-led groups at 16.00 on the first and last days to check-in about your practice and to connect with some others on the retreat.

Recordings will be made of Sessions 1 & 2 (maybe parts of Session 3) and posted up within one hour of the end of the session. We are expecting people to be joining from a wide range of time zones, so we hope the recordings will help some people to catch up with sessions they may miss.

The retreat will start with Session 1 on 28th December, and end with Session 3 on 2nd Jan.

You can book or register your interest in coming here. I really hope to see you on the retreat.

Not Enough

A few weeks ago, I was lying on the sofa in our lounge. I was lying down so I could more easily hold the monster of a book I had just started to read. With over 1900 pages and weighing in at 1.7 kilos it is heavy! Semi-reclining, I could perch the great tome on my belly and prop it up to vertical by resting it against my thighs. The book in question (which I’m about 180 pages into now) is called the Anguttara Nikaya, in English ‘The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha’. It’s one of a series of volumes that make up the Buddhist Canon, and although not written down until several hundred years after the Buddha’s death, the teachings within were carried through the centuries by a strong oral tradition. Though they were occasionally doctored in the intervening years to suit personal views and agendas, they are the closest we come to hearing the words of the Buddha.

Which brings me back to why I was reading it at this time and have been since. I’d been feeling a strong urge to read the Buddha’s words directly, and not just the odd sutta but regularly dipping into the sound of his ‘voice’. Before I’d got 20 pages in this first time – still on the 50 plus page introduction by Bhikkhu Bodhi – I was finding it thrilling. Actually, it’s repetitive in the extreme but this didn’t matter. I was enjoying the rhythm of the verses and reading every word rather than skimming a little.

I realised I was taking in the material in a different way to when I’ve read similar teachings over the years. I was appreciating and understanding it more because the words, phrases and stories were landing on a bedrock of experiential practice, in particular awareness practice. There was faith and confidence in my mind.

Then I was aware of quite a loud thought in my mind, almost as if someone was speaking very close to my ear. “You’re not doing enough” the voice said. “You think you are; you think your bad habits will drop away once irreversible insight comes, but you’re not doing enough for deep wisdom to arise and stay.”

There was no sense of judgement or self-blame in those moments but a clear eyed seeing. I knew instantly which habits were being referred to: too many thrillers, too many box-set re-runs. Too many ‘nights off’ where other habits around snacking on the wrong sort of food mean acting against what’s best for me. More than the individual habits was an attitude that was at times ‘start-stop’ in relation to practice. I don’t want to paint an exaggerated picture – but there are unhelpful and time-wasting habits that are not in alignment with my stated ideals.

And in the moment, with the words ‘not enough’ I saw it really clearly. I felt the same sort of thrill and delight as in reading the words of the Buddha. The thrill of the truth of that message, not floating along in the delusion of inevitable progress. It felt like an opportunity to respond differently.

There are 2 qualities that are a gift to spiritual practice, and it felt as if I’d just been offered both. The first is samvega, spiritual urgency. We are in touch with how much we want to liberate our hearts and minds. In moments when it is present, we see the extent we’ve been tinkering with the spiritual life and how much more of us is needed to really make a difference. There is a sense that life is short and uncertain. Taking for granted that we have time is just another way that delusion covers over the truth that life can end in a moment.

The second quality is resolve or determination, adhimoksa. Resolve allows us to bring more energy and conviction to practice and to make a stronger commitment to reaching our goal. Another way of talking about these qualities is an image of your turban being on fire. We act quickly and decisively enough to work out how to take it off!

The habits are small, but they pull energy away from awakening, and what I saw in that moment is that everything is required of me. Anything less doesn’t really cut it. Now the work is keeping in touch with these gifts, keeping them in awareness and recognising what helps them stay alive. And to change the metaphor – how to keep surfing when I’ve fallen off the wave, learning from the inevitable setbacks and mistakes.

Futuring the Self

            

Ageing and death have been in my consciousness more than usual this past while. With my sister’s illness and death and my own 60th and then 61st birthdays, the passing of time and life has been impinging more strongly. A long-standing preoccupation for me is how to make the most of the time I have when quite often I feel I’m not making the most of it. Additionally I’m not even that tuned in with the finitude of my life and everyone around me. It’s like the mind refuses to take seriously that my lifespan really is passing actually quite fast, and even if it wasn’t, my life could still come to an end at any moment. I’ve got curious about what is actually happening when the delusion of disbelief is operating in the mind in this way.

Two themes have come together recently that have illuminated some of the mechanisms at work – time and attachment.

A helpful book about time is Oliver Burkeman’s ‘4000 weeks’ – the span of an average human life. It’s an evocative title as 4000 weeks seems too little, it sounds less than seventy-seven years. A week is a casual measurement of time for most of us. We bandy it around without thinking. There’s the two-week holiday in the summer, or a week’s retreat a few times a year. There are things I do every week such as the Chapter meeting I attend regularly with some friends within the Triratna Buddhist Order. We say ‘’I’ll see you next week” not quite realising we’ll have one less week in hand by then.

A couple of months ago I listened to a talk (twice) by the Buddhist teacher Akincano. He was talking about Upadana, which translates as ‘clinging’ or ‘grasping’. We cling because we are trying to find certainty and stability within an uncertain world and a constantly changing body and mind.

This stability or safety needs to be in our lives in a psychological and physiological sense. Especially as young children, to thrive, we need to feel safe and loved. The health of our nervous system, which affects our physical, mental, and emotional well-being, depends on it. We need to have a healthy sense of self before we can go beyond the view of a fixed self.

But what we are doing in practice is to look more deeply at what is happening in our experience from a perspective that allows all the usual views and perspectives to be recognized.

Without mindfulness we don’t notice the mind is constantly seeking out moments of experience through the senses. It is ingenious really. To create cognitive and emotional stepping-stones that contribute to who we think we are, we take hold of the brief registering of sense experiences. Sights, sounds, tastes, tactile touches, smells, and momentary experiences through the mind sense such as thoughts are drawn into our sense of self. We disguise the ‘existential uncertainty’ we feel by attaching to and identifying ourselves with fragments of sense experience because we are afraid to confront death (the ultimate instability). As Akincano says we’re identifying ourselves with brief moments in order to cover up the fact that one day sense experience will come to an end. Through the moments of temporary stability we create, we gain emotional security from the sense of ‘this is me’, ‘this is who I am’.

Where Time comes into this is through our habit of living in the future. We are very rarely fully present here and now. Through the planning and imagining minds we outsource our life into an off-planet conceptual mode where thoughts and emotions create temporary but whole and believable fictional worlds. While we’re meditating, we might think “after this I’ll pull some weeds up from the garden” or “I’ll email so and so about lunch tomorrow” or I’ll think about how my teaching schedule is panning out for next year and when I’ve got time to get on retreat myself – the ‘juggling things mind’. These are normal and ordinary thoughts, we all have them and many more, and we have them for the same reason – we are creating mental stepping-stones into a future where we feel we have some control. The implicit thought-feeling process within me is something like ‘I can’t die whilst I’m living in a world of future plans.’ Life can’t end while I’m half living in a future where there is a holiday to have and a wedding to plan, or a promotion or a meal to prepare for. This project of self-construction by identifying and attaching to momentary happenings takes a lot of mental energy but we feel it’s worth it if we are then more able to ignore the reality that stability is not to be found in a world that is conditioned.

However existential uncertainty is not so easily ignored and much of the dissatisfaction we experience comes from daily confrontations with dukkha, with things not quite going right, or the way we want them to go. The Buddha’s advice is to see this process more clearly from the standpoint of the present moment. See how frequently the mind absents itself from this moment to create some imaginary one that will happen further down the line.

Ironically, I have found that becoming more aware of the tendency to ‘future the self’, I’ve understood the value and importance of the present moment more clearly. I’ve prioritised awareness and felt a decided reluctance to enter the conceptual mode when not completely necessary. Doing nothing has become easier and more welcome. Trusting that it is enough to simply ‘know’ and rest with what is happening within the body-mind, has become more natural.

These moments of understanding and their fruits are, of course, also conditioned, and they weaken at times when conditions are not so supportive but by speaking of them and writing about them, I hope to prioritize them and support their continuing and deepening presence.

Unity & Diversity

Mathew Syed’s book ‘Rebel Ideas’ has some fascinating things to say about creative thinking and problem solving.

His main idea – and one that is current in evolutionary psychology – is that as a species we do better when we collaborate and cooperate. With simple straightforward problems we’ll do fine with giving the task to the person best qualified to deal with it. Where we run into trouble is when we treat simple and complex problems in the same way; complex issues need diversity brought to them.

Syed’s first major example (and he gives many fascinating examples from science, politics, and business) is the CIA in the period running up to 9/11. He says the CIA underestimated Al Qaeda and mis-read signs of the growing power and influence of Osama Bin-laden. The CIA was filled with largely white, highly educated men who although they were bright and dedicated had strong similarities in their class backgrounds and education. Therefore, they approached problems in similar ways, covering the same ground, and missed crucial signs of growing danger that were outside of their range of experience.

When Bin-laden came to the eye of western intelligence agencies he was not taken seriously for quite a while. He gave speeches from a cave in traditional robes and had a long white beard. He was dismissed as unsophisticated and unthreatening; not capable of causing the west much trouble. The significance of the traditional touches and appearing in a cave (as the birthplace of Mohammed) would have been instantly recognisable to Arab Muslims were they had been represented at different levels of the CIA. However, they weren’t.

What the lack of diversity created within the CIA was a homogeny of ideas, leading to a high degree of consensus but very few alternative ‘out of the box’ views and suggestions. Had there been more diversity of gender, race, religion, education and experience and a culture of broader collaboration, at the very least more information would have been available from a greater variety of sources, with a wider interpretation of the ‘facts’ and allowing for more solutions.

So how is all this relevant to me, to you reading this blog?

I’ve been wondering whether there are parallels in how we relate to simple and complex problems within our spiritual lives, both through the institutions many of us are involved with and how we practice within them.

If the management structures or leadership hierarchies of our spiritual communities are too closed to the ideas of the wider community or the world beyond that, they will function as an echo chamber. ‘Tradition’ and a reluctance to change how we do things can end up minimising opportunities for those outside the leadership to contribute. This can potentially cause the whole community to become more rule-bound and ossify and harden.

Running a spiritual community takes a lot of skill and something of a flair for organisation as it’s a complex organism. We all enjoy harmony, and a group with similar views and life experiences is more likely to provide a feelgood consensus, but not necessarily make good decisions. Diverse groups where discussions might be a bit bumpy en-route to learning how to skilfully disagree and actively listen have been shown to collectively make intuitive leaps to creative ideas that weren’t even in the ring before.

James Surowiecki in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ says ‘groups that are too much alike find it hard to keep learning, because each member is bringing less and less new information to the table. Homogenous groups become progressively less able to investigate alternatives.’

Unifying around ideals, teachings and practices is essential for a spiritual community, but diversity keeps it alive. Spiritual practice happens over decades, and we are in for the long haul, so it’s important that we keep things fresh.  While there are many things that are helpfully stable, that doesn’t mean things don’t change over time.

 In our movement, as in lots of different Buddhist traditions, we teach the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation practice that was taught by the Buddha. The structure is recognizable from two and a half thousand years ago, but the way it is taught has changed subtly even over the 35+ years since I learned it. It has been changed by thousands of people practicing it regularly, finding ways of making it their own, emphasizing directed attention or relaxation for example. It has been changed by the society changing around us; the growth of secular mindfulness backed up by scientific research, a greater openness to meditation in the west. The reasons people use the Mindfulness of Breathing range from seeking greater well-being to an anti-dote to depression. Enlightenment is no longer the main reason to practice.

There will be many different phases and incarnations as a healthy group grows and develops. Keeping a diverse range of people with different relevant skills and life experiences involved at all levels of complex decision making will ensure the organisation considers a wide range of creative and imaginative options.

And then there is the whole area of unity and diversity within our own practice – I think that deserves more words than I can spare here so let’s keep that for another time.

Death & Love

Recently my sister died. I find myself navigating who to tell and when to tell them, and in how much detail. My over-sharing tendency, which I thought was pretty much in check these days, has been reasserting itself, blurting out at times, disconcerting acquaintances occasionally. I’m learning to start off with a warning; change of topic, signposting and preparing. Is this clumsiness part of grief I ask myself? Is it simply because I’m in new territory, or territory not visited for quite a while and therefore unfamiliar? I’m keeping myself to myself quite a bit apart from my new temporary housemate. We check in with each other regularly and occasionally watch comedy on Catch Up TV together.

When I’m quiet I’m visited by scenes from her final days. I welcome them and the feeling of connection they bring – to her, and her family, and partner. And my own wider family. As the days go on it takes a more conscious effort to voluntarily hold that space where I can wait in openness for the process to unfold.

Today on a solitary bright sunshine walk by the river watching my mind, finding a quality of mood that is a bit low and heavy. But there is something else too, something that smacks of an idea of what bereavement should feel like, a subtle holding to something that is not quite landing on the present moment. There is puzzlement and I realise the ideas in the mind are because ‘I’ don’t know how to relate to a sister no longer living.

As I walk through green fields with the sharp blue of sky above, there is a moment of insight, the wisdom in the mind knows that in her life my sister was a constant coming together and dispersing of conditions. Understanding life as a kaleidoscope of physical and mental happenings feels clean and fresh. There is still a body, but it no longer supports life, it’s not able to smell or touch or see, hear, taste, or know things. In a week or two, after the cremation, there won’t even be a body, simply ash. These are massive changes in a very short period – perhaps that’s the thing we’re not used to with death. Usually, the changes are noticeable if we pay attention, but they’re incremental (a different haircut, a growth spurt in a child, lines on our face as we get older) until something big happens, like death.

Maybe there is some consciousness hanging around, but I can’t feel it – not in the way I could sense a strong channel of connection between us through which flowed loving kindness and a wish for peacefulness in her last days of life. When I could really feel how the stripped back nature of death meant love was more visible, pure, and unadorned.

So, there are conditions coming together, elements of existence in the form of the skandhas. But what else of what I think of as the ‘messy’ side? There are memories from the 58 years we knew each other, images in the mind of bedrooms shared, teenybopper posters on walls (me, Donny Osmond, her, David Cassidy, until we both went Bay City Roller mad!). Thoughts and images jumbled with imaginings; the self-creating and constructing process keeping going. There are feelings – of love and sober and, at times, confusing feelings and thoughts. This part of the process of loss and adjustment – remembering, feeling, puzzling – this too is conditioned, it’s natural. Part of the nature of things.

I tell myself to let it flow. Don’t try to control this flow. Loss is conditioned just like everything else. By attachment, and simply having a body and mind. And love is conditioned, bubbling up, naturally arising, and then gone. A sight comes in, bare wintered trees, a sound, of water running over the Weir, the grass and mud under my feet and then, momentary and beautiful, love and loss entwined once again.

Ways into Wisdom

Wisdom is like a jewel in more ways than one. It’s precious, undeniably so. It is beautiful and has beautiful effects on the mind. It is multi-faceted. And – in a circular sort of relationship – this multi-faceted nature is of crucial importance to the realising of wisdom.

It means that we can approach wisdom, the nature of reality, from different directions. Each direction gives us a different view and a new way into understanding. Eventually all these understandings coalesce and the small ways which each ‘seeing’ has interpenetrated all the other ‘seeings’ add up to a much deeper wisdom. Our perspective is then from the deepest heart of the jewel.

And mostly all we need to do is keep looking and stay curious.

The way to wisdom in this more receptive mindfulness practice is largely implicit. It’s not necessary to actively reflect on the conceptual teachings when we’re meditating, though it is helpful to know them well through study and reflection outside of times of formal sitting. We don’t bring in concepts any more than is necessary to sustain an implicit ‘right view’ or dharma perspective, as it’s so easy for the conceptual mind to co-opt the experiences of clear seeing we do have.

We just keep looking, keep noticing and being aware.

One jewel facet that arose in my meditation recently came after hearing a dharma talk about how we perceive self and world. What can be known apart from our experience through the five physical senses and the mind sense.

This particular formulation of ‘right view’ was obviously still resonating in my mind a few days later when I came to meditate. I was sitting with an awareness of some pain – I’d woken with a headache and my neck was sore and stiff. I started noticing that the mind felt quite spacious around the discomfort and moving at times to other objects. There were physical sensations, smells from the incense I was burning, and occasional thoughts. I was aware I was happy to be sitting. I gradually noticed that when my attention was on something other than the pain, I was not aware of the pain. In fact, it seemed not to be there in those moments.

The question arose spontaneously ‘if my attention is not on the sensations of pain but on something else, is the pain still experienced?’ The answer was a clear ‘no’. I continued watching sensations in my head, including the ‘pain’, and now it felt as if wisdom was more strongly present. There was a sort of ‘looking-knowing’ quality in the mind infused with curiosity, and quickly the spaces between the moments of ‘mind knowing pain’ grew longer. It felt like the ‘looking-knowing’ way of being changed the experience of pain and discomfort. It felt less dense and consistent and more intermittent.

It was clear there was very little resistance to the experience of pain and that the mind was OK with whatever was happening, and the lack of resisting impacted on how the pain was experienced. There was a sense that the conceptual realm that sustained pain through time and a particular location was breaking down. It raised the possibility that the pain didn’t exist in the way I usually thought it did.

It was a few minutes of practice and yet it affected my whole morning with happiness, productivity, and creativity. One final knock on effect was a greater enthusiasm to get on the meditation cushion. Those times where practice becomes fascinating are such a gift!

I’m going to be exploring some different ways into wisdom on a retreat shortly. It will be for people who have already been on a retreat with me before, so we can dive into exploring wisdom and delusion in more depth. Find more information here.

Ways to Wisdom Retreat

Online retreat – Tuesday 28th December to Saturday 1st January

After many years of leading “Uncontrived Mindfulness” retreats, I’m excited to be offering a retreat specifically aimed at people who have already been on retreat with me, to help them take their practice of this method deeper.

So this online retreat is for anyone who has previously participated in a week or more of retreat with me.  It will be led by myself with support from Vajrapriya.

While continuing to emphasise a receptive and broad ‘seeing’ of whatever arises in our experience, the retreat will have a special focus on how  wisdom can be developed: both by recognising moments of clear seeing, and by learning to recognise how ‘moha’ (delusion) manifests – this recognition is itself a moment of wisdom.

Running from Tuesday 28th December with a 10.30 am start to Saturday 1st January, ending 9pm, come and spend the quiet and wintry time before New Year meditating and investigating the nature of your mind. The invitation is to really give yourself the time and space to be on retreat, so that awareness can grow and support a deeper seeing into the mind.

A limited number of review slots will be available.

The retreat is on a dana basis.

It will consist of 4 sessions a day (times in GMT):

7.30-8.15am (from Wednesday) Unguided meditation
10.30-12.30 Input and meditation
5-6pm  Input and meditation
8-9pm Unguided meditation and ritual

On the first and last day there will be an extra session with check-in groups from 4- 4.45pm. Here you have the opportunity to share something of your current meditation practice and meet some others on the retreat.

Once booked you should receive a simple email confirmation from Google. We will be in touch one week before the start of the retreat with more information.
Please use the Contact form if you have further questions at this point.

Just what is Uncontrived Mindfulness?

This is one of the questions I get asked most frequently these days. This happens especially in the book launch sessions I’ve been leading, mainly on zoom, since ‘Uncontrived Mindfulness: ending suffering through attention, curiosity, and wisdom’, was published at the end of March 2021.

The question is usually followed by ‘if there is uncontrived mindfulness does this mean that there is also such a thing as contrived mindfulness’?

And, yes, I think there is. So, I want to tell you what I tend to say on those occasions when I talk about contrived and uncontrived mindfulness.

Most of us already know what contrived mindfulness can feel like, especially in the early stages of our practice. It can happen when we’re trying a bit too hard, we’re being a bit forceful and the mind – and often the body too – become tense. Over time we can create a loop where we get frustrated at not being able to ‘do’ mindfulness and this brings about more tension and ‘trying’. What we are calling mindfulness feels a strain and not very pleasurable at all!

This is clearly where our ‘contriving’, or in other words, our trying to make something happen, is unhelpful although it can be a useful experience to know what mindfulness isn’t! But I think contriving can also be a part of wholesome mindfulness where we gently and persistently set up the conditions for mindfulness to come into being in a much more natural way. In this way ‘contriving’ relates to encouraging and cultivating mindfulness. We strengthen our intention to be aware through reminding ourselves, in the present moment, and through remembering to be aware. Gradually more moments of mindfulness string together, on and off the cushion. We start to build momentum in the practice.

Momentum gives rise to mindfulness that has a different feel and flavour to what has gone before. There is no need to actively (even in a receptive way) cultivate mindfulness. It’s like riding a bicycle – when you start out you have to keep peddling or you’ll stop and perhaps fall off! However, once you’ve got going you don’t need to peddle much at all, just the occasional push will keep you going.

With uncontrived mindfulness it is like the awareness is happening on its own. There is a sense of flow and ease. No contriving is necessary at this stage of the practice. We just have to get out of our own way as the mind is naturally aware and knowing what is happening. There is no need for personal effort as the qualities of mindfulness and some clear seeing have become strong in the mind – in a similar way to a muscle becoming strong through repetition of a certain exercise.

When mindfulness is uncontrived, we can lose the feeling that there is someone solid and whole who is doing the practice. We lose what we can call the feeling of me. And in its place can be a felt understanding that there isn’t anyone thinking, directing, or controlling experience. This understanding includes the sense that everything – including awareness – is simply happening on its own terms.

 When mindfulness and wisdom are cultivated, they are what predominate in the mind. When greed or anger or disappointment are cultivated (through dwelling and proliferating on them) they are what become strong forces in the mind. The difference is that when awareness and wisdom are cultivated, they are capable of understanding how the mind really works, whereas craving and co. will only reinforce the delusion of a separate self.

Other words for uncontrived are ‘uncultivated’, ‘unconstructed’ or ‘unfabricated’ are used in different Buddhist traditions and these are commonly found in translations. But it was only recently I was directed to a translation where ‘uncontrived’ was used instead. The hermit yogi Milarepa repeating in the last line of one of his songs, ‘the uncontrived mind is so blissful indeed!’

If you would like to dive into exploring the bliss of the uncontrived mind, check out the online retreat, I’m running for Order Members & Mitras from 25th September to 1st October .

Believing the Impossible

Something that has been a defining part of my psyche and that I have worked with quite a bit in my practice is doubt. Particularly self-doubt. I know I’m not alone as most of us, at some point, if not many points in our lives, experience self-doubt. It’s not for nothing that the Buddha named doubt as one of the first three ‘fetters’ which when seen through and ‘broken’ mean significant progress on the spiritual path. Doubt is a powerful and deep force in the mind and can be painful to experience.

Self-doubt can make us feel uncertain about our choices or lacking in confidence. It can make me doubt the words I put on these pages, question whether I’m saying anything of relevance or even if my words make sense. Whatever evidence there is to the contrary, doubt is that little undermining voice, that squirmy unsettling feeling. It might just appear once in a while or seem to be ever present. It can hold us back from action in an endless round of second guessing ourselves.

A few months ago, I came across a podcast series from the BBC called ‘How They Made Us Doubt’. Maybe some of you listened to the dozen or so episodes? I listened while I cooked lunch, so the recordings didn’t have my fullest attention, but enough get a clear sense of the damage done through the deliberate introduction of doubt into public discourse.

There were two main targets: firstly, from the 1950’s onwards around the effects of smoking on our health, and in more recent decades, focusing on human made climate change. The podcasts showed evidence of a documented and deliberate policy of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to seed enough doubt to sew confusion about the harms done despite overwhelming scientific research to the contrary.

I find this manipulation of information in the world we live in mirrored by the way doubt or self-doubt works in our minds and affects our views, opinions, and choices. Doubt is insidious, it promotes an alternate and distorted perspective. It plays on ‘what if?’, and ‘how can I be absolutely sure?’ Doubt plays a game of smokes and mirrors leaving confusion and paralysis in its wake. It creates an equal playing field by giving a platform to the almost impossible – and in the process making it seem entirely possible.

We can see doubt working in our own minds like any other mental ‘object’; it needs observing, feeling into, and to be seen for what it is. But this is easier said than done as it is such a slippery, amorphous mind state. I find a number of things help once doubt has been identified in our experience.

  1. Check if you’re identified with it. Are we believing what doubt is saying about us, or about a situation? Recognising the identification and the belief that it is true will help release its grip, enabling us to see it more clearly.
  2. Seeing through the view that we have to take doubt’s perspective into account. (We all know now that smoking is bad for us!)
  3. Treating it like ’Mara’, a mischief making, undermining voice that we can safely ignore. (I’ll keep writing despite its whisperings!)
  4. Remembering that the Buddha experienced doubt right until on the point of Enlightenment. It’s not a mistake or failure to experience it.

We can remember too that in Buddhism doubt is not all bad, with sayings such as ‘the bigger the doubt the bigger the Buddha,’ or ‘great doubt, great awakening’. These aphorisms are talking about the potential of doubt; that searching questioning quality of mind that doesn’t close down options prematurely.

Our job is to feel into and distinguish between doubt that is helpful to the path, and doubt that leads to more suffering.

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