Some time ago friends of mine decided to take turns to read each other ‘War and Peace’ to help them build a continuity of awareness that carried through talking and listening. In the Satipatthana Sutta the Buddha implies we should be aware when we’re talking and when we’re silent. It is not easy to be aware while we’re talking and this is why retreats are often held largely in silence. Usually we’re not practising what Sayadaw U Tejaniya calls ‘talking meditation’.
I’m not suggesting that our speech is unethical or that we don’t take account of the speech precepts. But do we carry a continuity of awareness through from one moment to the next whilst we’re speaking or listening? There is a lot more we can be aware of: for instance are we aware of the physical sensations in the throat and face when we speak? Do we notice the sound vibrations of our own speech? Are we aware of tone and pitch – of ourselves and person we’re in a conversation with? Are we aware of our posture, leaning forward into the space between us or leaning back?
When talking about practising in daily life recently I asked the university students in drop-in Mindfulness class to sit opposite each other. One person in each pair had the task of just affirming every now and again what the other person was saying with an ‘OK’ or ‘Yes’. The other person was to repeat a single, simple sentence over and over. “Speak in a normal voice” I instructed. When I told them what the sentences were the noise levels soared and embarrassed laughter broke out. “You see” I made myself heard over them “it would be easy to do this exercise with a silly voice but the words are just a device. Just say them straight.”
For many of you this probably sounds very familiar and you might think you know where I’m going with this. In the early days of Triratna we regularly did ‘Communication Exercises’ designed to break through the barriers of reserve and habit with which we communicated with each other. The idea was to affirm what the other person was saying, to affirm them while they spoke the child-like phrases.
But actually I was getting at something else in this class. It was ‘talking meditation’. The words were deliberately simple and repetitive: “The sky is blue today”, “The birds are singing here”. “The full moon is rising”. (OK, I wasn’t sure they’d go for “the cow is in the field”!) I asked them to stick to one phrase only – though this was clearly too much for several of the pairs I could hear who swapped around a bit! I asked them to see if they could continue to be aware whilst saying or hearing the phrase.
I wanted to convey that talking and listening are just objects of experience to be aware of like any other. Starting with using simple language with little conceptual content it was easier to stay aware of physical and mental processes throughout. We can practice ‘talking meditation’ in this way.
After some 1,440 pages and over 500,000 words of War and Peace my friends found it had become a positive habit to be aware whenever they spoke or listened to someone speaking. You might find other ways that have a similar effect. Mindful singing? Mindful poetry reading? However we do it more awareness in this tricky area can only be a good thing!
Those of you who have been on retreat with Tejananda will recognise the words above, maybe even have sung them with him at Vajraloka. During this time in Burma they have come to mind as I’ve meditated and reflected on awareness, on the mind and above all practising staying present to experience.
Whatever that experience might be – for me this morning it was swimming in the Bay of Bengal, off the western Myanmar coast, the sky a stunning blue and the sea a turquoise shimmer.The body weightless and the mind in bliss. Two hours later anxiety was creeping in as I walked up the beach looking for the village I’d set out for – had I gone too far up the coast? (almost certainly). Was I getting sun burnt/de-hydrated/knackered/bad-tempered?
Blissful, irritated, tired, hot and sweaty. We can be aware of all these things and many more. And the quality with which we are aware can transform the experience. Awareness doesn’t depend on a certain object to function. The balance, clear sightedness and impartiality of awareness allow pleasant or unpleasant experiences to be fully known. It is possible to be aware of anything that we can know through the physical senses and the same goes for the mind. Thoughts, feelings and other more subtle qualities in the mind can all be known.
Usually we’re either focused externally – and I could feel that pull on the beach this morning towards beauty and the pleasure of the senses – or caught up in an internal dialogue – as with the thoughts and feelings fuelling anxiety when I was lost and over-heating. Awareness allows both those processes to be known and, with practice, not identified with as ‘me’, ‘my thoughts’ etc. It does this through looking more internally at what is going on, through the wisdom aspect of Right Mindfulness – clearly knowing or comprehending and manifesting as a strong interest and a dharma perspective.
We get interested in what is actually happening and distinguish that from our ideas and concepts about experience. Have you ever asked yourself – how does a thought feel in the mind? what is awareness? how do I know I’m aware? Does it make a difference to understand anxiety or irritation or sadness as a feeling in the mind and body? Not asking these questions to answer them on a conceptual level but to let them point us to our direct experience in that moment. We need receptivity for awareness to reveal what its aware of, to just let things happen. And sometimes that letting go allows us to know the mind in a new way, going where it’s not gone before, to be completely present to the mysterious nature of awareness.
This song by alternative folk band ‘Seize the Day’ comes to mind this morning. I’m thinking about meditation and what to write. How not much happened in practice yesterday and how more and more I’m OK with that. There is a new contentment with experience. The demand for it to be interesting or insightful has dropped. Sometimes it feels like the mind is drifting and getting a bit lost in mind scraps, mental flotsam and jetsam and I wonder if it’s just a slightly pleasant dreamy state. But the contentment is undeniable. There is ease and spaciousness in a mind that doesn’t need anything else to happen in the moment.
Ease and a naturalness have been long cultivated and hard won in a mind that is much more conditioned towards striving, towards strained effort and results. The tendency to ‘fiddle’ with my experience to adjust to something ‘better’ or closer to the idea of what I think should happen has been tamed with curiosity. ‘Curbing mind’ has been seen over and over coming in sharply and cutting short a renegade thought. It has gradually lost its brute force and urgency through being known in the aware mind.
I’m looking to see the mind in its natural state. The ‘fiddling’ or ‘curbing’ are part of that. I see how they create suffering in the mind causing the tightening in my shoulders and beginnings of a headache. Attempting to control thoughts, images and stories leads to dukkha creating tension. There’s no need to ‘let go’ of these things: seeing them in awareness, knowing them for what they are and having a certain amount of interest in the process is enough.
Like the naturalist studying nature (take David Attenborough for example!) I’m just looking to see what’s happening rather than interfere with how the anthill community or the mind function. Through simple observation of the mind in its natural state, going about its ‘work’ of thinking, perceiving, planning, intending, fantasising to name just a few of its functions a universe opens up.
It’s not the universe of ‘content’ but one of process. Like nature for the naturalist almost anything from the weirdest and ugliest bugs becomes interesting and a thing of beauty to be marvelled over. What does a thought feel like? How do I know I’m feeling? What is the difference between anger and sadness felt in the body? Not asking these questions for an answer but to allow interest in direct experience to grow.