A Modest Ambition

A couple of weeks ago I realised that Lockdown was getting to me a bit. Previously I’d felt content not to go anywhere or see anyone apart from spending an unprecedented amount of real life time with my partner, and everyone else via Zoom. For 4 months I’d had plenty to do – a book to finish, a garden to create from a rubbish heap, on-line retreats and events to lead – and plenty of time for extra practice.

But suddenly, amidst the confusion of lockdown transition, the ‘what am I allowed to do now?’ anxiety, I felt a bit low in mood and unmotivated to do much. I felt I had too much time and not enough to do, or rather, not enough that I felt motivated to do. My life felt small and limited. This bothered me slightly as I reclined on my bed and downloaded yet another police procedural ebook to while away the afternoon. But when I stayed with the feeling of subtly uncomfortable body sensations, and low key mental un-ease I realised that awareness was often present through the day.

In some ways the ‘not quite enough to do’ feeling was very similar to being on retreat where there’s lots of time and very few tasks. I recognised I was actually in quite good conditions for practice even though the mind states I was experiencing weren’t particularly energetic or upbeat. Awareness was easily accessible and recognising this brought more interest to the mind.

I remembered something Sayadaw U Tejaniya said to me last year on retreat. He said, “you have to learn the skill of coasting”. He was pointing to something significant. Often in my practice of on-going awareness I’d get to a point where things seemed to flatline a bit. That could happen after a difficult period, but it was more frequently something I noticed after a period where awareness had gone well and been consistent for a while, and then something changed. It was as if I’d been sailing along nicely and then the wind died and I hit the doldrums and stalled. Remembering my attempts to learn to wind-surf many years ago – this is the point when I always fell off the board.

So, learning to coast is learning to hold my nerve when it seems like not much is happening. And falling off is when I panic a bit and follow the urge to try and make something happen. Often this is the point where doubt will get a hold in the mind, and some unnoticed view that this is not enough is believed.

Funnily enough, the two pieces of teaching work I was preparing that week were both relevant and proved to be a way of reflecting on my own experience. I was due to talk about patience (ksanti) in one, and the sensitivity of awareness for the online Buddhafield Festival. Instead of responding with impatience I could be sensitive to what was happening in the moment. I could stay on my board without immediately trying to do too much, but take in the current conditions, feeling out my balance. Enjoying the moment and the view of the calm still sea and clear sky meeting.

There are times when we feel energetic and inevitably there are lulls in practice, and the near stalls of low energy or mood, can be difficult to stay with. But ‘coasting’ is a skill we need to develop if we are to avoid opposing what’s happening in the moment because it seems too modest and unassuming. It is not always easy to know when to ‘stay with’ and when we need to act to bring a bit more energy and motivation into our being. ‘Staying with’, at least for a while, gives us the chance to get to know this state, and can give us the answer to what needs to happen next.

My ‘answer’ was to take more seriously a longing to spend time by the sea and to make it happen. This gave me some solitude and touched into an awareness that brought joy and delight to the mind.

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