A Beautiful Mind

I’m turning my mind to a retreat I’m running soon over New Year for Order Members and Mitras. Some of you reading have already booked for it and I look forward to seeing you in the zoom space. The theme is Uncontrived Mindfulness: a beautiful mind.

You may well have different responses to the idea of a beautiful mind. Qualities of the beautiful (kalyana is the word in Pali) mind are often associated with positive emotions such as kindness, compassion, and generosity. It sounds inspiring, and delightful to have a quality of mind that is enjoyable and pleasurable to experience, and beneficial to others to be around.

But you might respond by feeling a bit daunted or put off because you know that the quality of your own mind is often far from the ‘ideal’. That’s all very well, you might think, but what about all the times when I feel grumpy or depressed or struggling to get through all I’ve got to do. What about the times when I’d just prefer to go shopping or eat pizza?

It’s natural that we all have times when the mood is low or we feel unmotivated to practice, and it is easy to think with this type of mind that we can’t practice or feel doubtful or despondent about our own ability to change and grow spiritually. We might think we just have to try harder, to make more effort, and turn the mind state around to something more ‘positive’. While it is natural at times to feel doubt, aversion, or a lack of motivation, using our will to try and change what is happening is not always helpful and can sometimes lead to tension and frustration.

There are lots of qualities of the beautiful mind that are not obviously altruistic or happy.  What the beautiful mind qualities have in common is that they are all ethically skilful. And because of this, they reduce suffering in our experience. The particular qualities we’ll be exploring on the retreat are from a Buddhist ‘list’ known as the 5 Spiritual Faculties and in their own distinct ways they all benefit us whenever we experience them. They are faith, energy, wisdom, concentration/stability, and the central factor, within the mandala of the 5 faculties, mindfulness.

There is much I could say – and will say on the retreat – about each faculty, but for now I simply want to address the conundrum of having an ideal of a ‘beautiful mind’ with, at times, the reality of a distinctly unbeautiful mood. If we are to avoid polarising with ourselves into spiritually acceptable or unacceptable parts we need to think in a skilful way about our practice. By thinking in a way that is in accord with the Dharma we no longer need to reject what we don’t like or over-identify with the parts we think are positive and good.

We can use the five spiritual faculties working together to do this, but for now, I want to bring in just one way in which mindfulness forms part of that helpful perspective on the broad range of our experience. With mindfulness we are cultivating a quality of mind that is spacious and at ease with whatever it observes. Some part of the mind is always ‘knowing’ or observing what is happening. If we can get curious about that part of the mind, we allow it to grow and become stronger. We ‘grow’ a skilful awareness that recognises a disgruntled mind, a self-pitying mind, or an over-intoxicated mind but without indulging in it or opposing it.

When we give more attention to the quality of mindfulness, we are less interested in the ‘objects’ of experience, than with the mind that is knowing what is happening. Mindfulness recognises unskilful or unhappy mind states for what they are, without judging, and uses them as simply more experiences that can be known in awareness. The knowing of each experience is like using a mindfulness muscle that becomes stronger and more flexible with each new object. Whether the object is a neutral one like the breath, or a more obviously pleasant or unpleasant one matters not a jot to awareness. Any object does the job of helping grow mindfulness.

On the retreat we’ll look more at how the other spiritual faculties of faith, energy, wisdom, and stability support mindfulness to ever greater freedom. And there is a freedom when we’re released  from the tyranny of always having to have ‘good’ or ‘pleasant’ experiences and can fully appreciate that we can have difficult and unpleasant moods and mind states without the need to get rid of them.

You can find more about the practicalities of the retreat on the info page – here

Uncontrived Mindfulness : a beautiful mind.

An online meditation retreat for Order Members & Mitras.

From Monday 28th December at 7.30 pm to Sunday 3rd January ending 9pm.

Awareness and Wisdom are both qualities of the mind that is beautiful, clear-seeing and free. These and other qualities of the ‘kalyana’, or ‘ethically lovely’ mind will be explored on this meditation retreat through the lens of the Satipatthana Sutta, and the five Spiritual Faculties.

We will encourage a receptive, open awareness and work with right view, to cultivate both beauty and truth, allowing the whole range of our experience to be known as it is.

The retreat will consist of 3 sessions a day: 10.30-12.30, 5-6pm & 8-9pm GMT. The main input sessions (morning and afternoon) will be recorded and posted daily in case you have to miss one, or the time zones don’t work for you, of if you want to re-listen to a session.

Please feel free to engage with the retreat with the flexibility you need if you have other responsibilities to attend to or health needs.

I really enjoyed the last retreat, and this one will have the added bonus of bringing in the New Year. After a sobering 2020 we’ll have the chance to sit on New Years Eve together, in warm, spacious awareness with Vajrasattva.

The retreat is running on a Dana basis, and there will be an opportunity to offer dana during the retreat.

Book here

Once booked you should receive a simple email confirmation from Google. We will be in touch a couple of weeks before the start of the retreat with more information.

When Mindfulness isn’t enough

I have a tremendous amount of faith in awareness as a way to wisdom but that doesn’t mean that sometimes other approaches are helpful or even essential on the path. Sometimes what’s needed is found outside the Buddhist tradition. I’ve been exploring some ideas and recent research, that say that mindfulness is helpful for a lot of people but not necessarily so if you’ve experienced trauma. Or at least, the mindfulness practice may need to be tailored in such a way that takes into account how the body and mind of someone affected by trauma might react. Such approaches are known as ‘trauma sensitive’ mindfulness, or ‘trauma informed’ mindfulness.

Most of us probably think of trauma as the big life threatening one offs like a violent assault or a car accident. Or sustained physical or sexual abuse as a child. But trauma has been redefined in recent years in two important ways.

 Firstly, the term is used as applying to the body-mind system that regularly feels overwhelmed by some aspect of their life, after the traumatic event. It is less about what has happened than how the individual mind-body system responds to what has happened. In her book ‘Widen the Window’ Elizabeth Stanley uses the example that if a dozen marines go into a combat situation, there will be a dozen different responses to what they’ve experienced once they’ve returned home. Some may go on to develop PTSD or depression, and others will not. She says this is not about who is a stronger person or better able to ‘cope’ but is down to involuntary responses coded into the nervous system from earlier life experiences.

Secondly the definition of trauma has broadened to include ‘relational’ and ‘developmental’ trauma.  Developmental trauma is often experienced as more chronic ‘micro’ events in childhood. A recent massive study looked at the effects of ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ on adults ‘being frequently sworn at, insulted or put down, pushed, slapped, grabbed, injuries causing marks or being touched in a sexual way’. When these things happen to us as children the study found the traumatic effects often continue to affect us in adulthood. Between adults, ‘relational’ trauma manifests when coercive, violent, or controlling behaviours are present within a sexual relationship.

Because of the involuntary and ongoing nature of these physical (heart racing, sweating, ‘awful’ bodily feelings) and emotional (compulsive mental ‘stories’ and feelings of threat and unsafety) feelings, meditation by itself might not be enough, and in some cases, can make things worse. In meditation we are often focusing inwards and this can heighten ‘symptoms’ such as negative thoughts, frightening memories, and unpleasant body sensations, leading to re-traumatizing. We’ve known for many years that meditating while clinically depressed is not advised, because it can cause a vicious spiral of increased painful rumination on difficult thoughts and feelings, and it now seems that a similar mechanism is at work with trauma, through the nervous system.

If you find that meditation or mindfulness (which is where most of the research has been carried out) leaves you feeling worse off than when you started, stimulates a lot of negative self-talk, or you  feel somewhat numb and frozen after meditation, or if meditating regularly leaves you feeling tense or ‘out of your body’, pause. It’s not necessarily a bad technique or that you are doing it wrong. Or that you just have to try harder or for longer to get it ‘right’. It might just be that you need something more tailored to the needs of a dysregulated nervous system to help it settle into a regulated state.

This is where somatic based approaches such as Somatic Experiencing come into their own. They are able to work directly with the nervous system in the body (bottom up) rather than the ‘top down’ approaches of most therapies using the rational mind. And somatic approaches work well in conjunction with awareness cultivated through mindfulness practice. Trauma informed and trauma sensitive mindfulness is not about being more cautious or careful about how you use mindfulness, but about having more information. You can use the gentle curiosity of a receptive mindfulness to assess how your practice is going, looking honestly at what is or isn’t helping. And then it may be useful to look at simple exercises from SE, Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness (https://davidtreleaven.com/) or MMFT (Mindfulness for Mind Fitness) that work directly with orienting the nervous system to a bodily experience of safety that we might consciously not have known we were missing.

It made a big difference to me to understand that the nervous system, once dysregulated (which can happen to anyone), usually cannot find its own way to equilibrium without help. It takes away a lot of the judgement or feelings of failure or ‘not good enough’ in relation to practice. Once we understand how to bring the body and mind into regulation, we regain the initiative in our meditation. Practice begins to bring more fruits rather than struggle, and a feeling of potency and possibility.

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.

Addicted to our Senses

Shortly before leaving Burma at the end of my first visit, I left the retreat centre for a day, to shop for gifts to take home. I took a taxi divested of any soft furnishings except the seat, into the city centre, and spent a very happy few hours with a friend traipsing around colourful streets and covered markets and eating pizza for lunch, our first Western style food in months.

When returning to the centre that evening, we bumped into the teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, and spilled out our abundance of retreat energy joy.

“Yangon is beautiful” I gushed.

Sayadaw had a good laugh at that one. “It’s not Yangon that is beautiful” he said. “It’s your mind”.

Of course!

Yangon is a fascinating city, with stunning ancient stupas and Colonial elegance sitting alongside each other. Street stalls with friendly and curious vendors sell heaps of colourful fabrics or exotic fruits. Yangon is also a city of broken paving stones, foul-smelling rubbish heaps decaying in the heat of the tropical sun, and mangy dogs with starving pups. Buildings are black from pollution and when I look carefully, the poverty is visible in every glance.

Yes, Yangon is beautiful, but it is also ugly. How it is perceived depends on the quality of the mind perceiving and experiencing it, but we forget this. It takes constant reminders to bear this perspective in mind. We automatically re-set to prioritizing the objects of experience, rather than the mind that is knowing all these sense experiences.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe land on objects as if they were a life buoy in the middle of the ocean, rather than with the lightest touch that allows us to rest with the mind. We think the sense objects are our salvation, that they will rescue us from all the dis-ease of our lives. Just another sunset, or fine wine, or step up the career ladder will sooth the angst of the moment. Another stroke, hug or movie-night will reassure us that the unsettledness and uncertainty we feel hovering on the edge of consciousness is just an illusion. Resting with sense objects, rather than the mind knowing them, allows us to keep the nature of our lives at bay.

To stay with awareness, with the knowing quality, is a kind of renunciation; it puts the grasping onto sights and sounds, tastes, touches and smells into their rightful place within the play of experience.

Occasionally this addiction to the senses can be felt in awareness with the force of an insight, and when we feel it, we naturally want to rest with awareness. And from awareness we see the addiction that we take to be normal proper life, is anything but.

 

 

Grounded

Although I’ve just finished writing my first Dharma book, writing (unpublished) fiction is something I’ve always done. I’ve had an idea for a novel (along with copious notes) brewing for about four years, which I’ve been thinking about again, in relation to our current world situation.

It’s a novel with strong interweaving threads relating to climate change, terrorism and the dharma law (in the sense of law of gravity) that actions have consequences. I wanted to explore what, in the end, is important to us when society changes hugely and rapidly, without so much of a backward glance to how it was. I wanted to write about the breakdown of our current way of living that affects how we live, how we and what we eat, that changes the ease of global communications, how we travel (or don’t).  And what happens when these changes happen? When push comes to shove how thin is the fabric of decency and law and order in our society? Who are the heroes, and who the anti-heroes? What can we live with, and who can’t we live without?

One parallel to the Covid-19 reality and my fictional one is that we are grounded. We can’t go anywhere, and with just this one thing, we’re forced to radically change how we live. In my world of storytelling, we don’t have the resources to go anywhere, and if we could, it would be too dangerous.

In our current world we voluntarily, or at the risk of a fine or a telling off from a beleaguered police force, stay at home. I can’t do my usual work of leading retreats in various parts of Europe; I can’t travel to family outside the small market town I live in. I can’t meet friends in a café or go to see a movie or a band. In Britain – so far – we’re fortunate enough to still able to get outside and walk, cycle or run in the warm spring sunshine. We’ve avoided being locked up inside our houses unless of course, we’re at a high risk of catching and dying from the virus.

Amidst experiences of loneliness, isolation and limitation there are many gestures of generosity, kindness and befriending. Three quarters of a million volunteers wanting to help the NHS are a testament to that. When kindness meets loneliness, we can touch a tenderness in ourselves that connects us to others. Awareness can rest in that tenderness and an openness to our experience, whatever it is. For perhaps just a moment our loneliness shifts into something connecting and precious.

It is deeply sobering this worldwide lockdown, this global grounding. All I’ve taken for granted about my safe and benign life has been called into question. Everything I’ve relied on to protect me from illness, poverty, lawlessness and starvation is under threat. What lies around the corner is unknown. As a practising Buddhist, this should not be news; the future is always unknown, but the mind clings habitually to wanting to know and the pace of world change and the unpredictable directions it moves in, are discombobulating, spinning the mind off into anxiety and fear. I’m fascinated by the way the mind both can’t believe what is happening, and how quickly it adapts and attempts to grab hold of ideas of the cliched ‘new normal’.

P1050496

‘New normal’ is the minds way of trying to adjust to what is happening, trying to find some stable ground amidst groundlessness. It is where the opportunity of practice comes in. If I can watch my mind scrambling for certainty in an uncertain future and feel into the quality of suffering of that mind, there is the possibility to notice the ‘knowing’ of that experience, rather than being lost in it. The ‘knowing’ will likely have a different quality to it. It is not caught up in what might happen but is more connected with experience in the present moment. I can recognise in this moment of awareness, the mind is thinking, feeling, agitated or fearful, and that the knowing mind has its own different ‘nature’. It simply knows, without being identified with the thoughts and feelings in the mind, or the agitation in the body, and when I see that, there is immediate relaxation into spaciousness and relief.

What is happening in our world is shocking and deeply saddening. And yet, there are compensations, with pointers to another way of living. The earth loves that we are grounded, and we feel it too. There are clear skies above, and cleaner air in each breath. We wander through quiet streets with few vehicles, and marvel at animals reclaiming urban parks and alleys. The birds can hear themselves sing and perhaps we can more easily hear our own inner voices. Being grounded has simplified and quietened our lives, in ways that many of us will not want to lose.

In my fictional Armageddon it has always felt important not just to focus on what we lose, or the forces of greed and destruction that abound. There are beautiful moments too. When things get tough, when loss or fear threaten to overwhelm us, what protects us? Cultivating a quality of mind that supports actions of love, friendship and wisdom grounds us in a different way where we stand light but firm in our own minds and hearts. We are earthed within our slowed down bodies and they reward us with the delights of groundedness.

 

Deadline

Just a brief note really, to let you know that last week I handed in the manuscript I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. I’ve been writing a book about what I teach, a way of practising mindfulness as a path to insight, as a way of clear seeing leading to wisdom. I’m very happy to have finished the book, even though it may be a while before it is actually published with world events impacting on almost every aspect of our lives.

Windhorse Publications is a small independent publishing company of Buddhist Books, mainly but not exclusively from within the Triratna Buddhist Order and community.  As are a lot of booksellers, it is up against a huge amount of competition from on-line books. If you would like to financially support the publication of ‘Uncontrived Mindfulness’ by sponsoring the book, and receive a hard copy through the post and the link to the e-book once it is published, just follow the link below.

https://www.windhorsepublications.com/product/sponsor-uncontrived-mindfulness/

Some parts of the book are drawn from this blog, so if you do sponsor the book, or purchase it at a later date, there maybe a few words you remember from reading here.

with all good wishes

Vajradevi

Let What You Love Lead You to Wisdom

Tom Lubbock was the Chief Art Critic for the Independent newspaper in the UK. He was known to many for his weekly column where for five years he wrote with brilliance and passion about a piece of art, usually a painting.

He died in 2011, at the age of 53, of a brain tumour that struck at the speech and language part of his brain. He made his living, and his life’s meaning, from words, and it was to words he turned during the short years of his illness. Despite surgery and treatment he continued to work, also turning his intelligence and humour to his own predicament, producing a memoir called ‘Until Further Notice I am Alive’. As he gradually loses the ability to speak and even to form words into sentences in his mind he movingly charts his inner experience, with every word hard won, and increasingly ungraspable, slipping through his fingers like water.

Naturally his investigation turns to his relationship with language. He writes about the “mystery of summoning up words”.

“Where are they in the mind, in the brain? They appear to be an agency from nowhere. They exist somewhere in our ground, or in our air. They come from an unknown darkness. From a place we don’t normally think about”.

At first, he equates losing language along with the understanding of speech and writing, with the loss of his mind.

“These losses will amount to the loss of my mind. I know what this feels like and it has no insides, no internal echo. Mind means talking to oneself. There wouldn’t be any secret mind surviving in me.”

But then, as he stays with the experiences that have piqued his lively curiosity, later he continues

“I am faced practically and continually with a mystery that other people have no conception of, the mystery of the generation of speech. There is no command situation (in the mind), it goes back and back. Where the self lies at the heart of the utterance – the speaker generating the word – is always clouded. (my italics)

I think here that Tom Lubbock was hitting on the mystery of the nature of self, the lack of ‘command central’ or ‘manager in charge’. He came up close to the obscured and cloudy inner view, expecting to see something that would confirm his sense of self-identity, and was not able to do so.

This is the territory we investigate with curiosity when we recognise thoughts as thoughts and start to see their ephemeral and intangible nature. What seem so powerful and influential arise and disappear in a moment if we don’t hold on to them. Because of the damage to his brain it was more difficult for Tom to generate or hold on to thoughts, and so had a similar experience to the meditator. The sense that we are our thoughts can’t hold up to the scrutiny of awareness and the power of interest.

As Tom’s language decreased to the point where he was able to put just a handful of sentences together in his mind in a day he noticed something further; as thoughts and language were disappearing, something that I would call awareness was still there. ‘Knowing’ or ‘noticing’, ‘paying attention’ and ‘recognising’ were still on-line, and his experience was undiminished.

“But I find my brain is still busy, moving, thinking. I am surprised. My language to describe things in the world is very small, limited. My thoughts when I look at the world are vast, limitless and normal, (the) same as they ever were. My experience of the world is not made less by lack of language but is essentially unchanged. This is curious!”

It is impossible to know exactly what someone else means through their words, but I resonate with Tom Lubbock’s, and his journey exploring the nature of consciousness and its relationship to thoughts and language.

I think this journey was only made possible through his curiosity, his courage and good humour and his fierce love of life. His wife, the artist Marion Coutts describes his attitude “Tom’s illness was our disaster and our adventure” and in his own words “generally, it (life) is wonderful. We are interested.”

If we can bring even a little of this attitude to our own lives, who knows what we would be able to comprehend of the nature of experience.

Why I am Aware

I’m coming to the end of writing the book (about meditation) I’ve been engaged with for the past couple of years. In writing the conclusion I’ve been reflecting on the process of writing about awareness and wisdom and why it has been important to do so. I have been practising with mindfulness as a key aspect of meditation and life practice for twenty years now, and teaching for more than three quarters of that time. I sometimes ask myself (as I believe is healthy and helpful to do so) why do I continue to practice in this way? What have I gained, how has my practice developed?

What comes to mind is a phrase that doesn’t immediately answer the questions above but is more of a spontaneous utterance; awareness is transformative. Such simple words, they are almost a cliché. So what do I mean by them? How does awareness transform, and what does it transform? It transforms through the power of ‘knowing’ and the scope of that which is known.

I believe that awareness can ‘know’ anything. Not everything, of course. I’m not saying awareness is omniscient. There is a lot that awareness can’t know – it can’t forecast the weather or predict an election, or even sometimes recognise what’s in front of it, like the Maori people who literally didn’t see Captain Cook’s ships approaching shore as the huge structures were so unfamiliar their eyes and brains.

There may well be things happening in us or outside of us that we don’t know. We miss hearing part of a conversation because we have some hearing loss, or we bang a door shut accidentally through not being aware or mindful. Once again, it’s easy to confuse the capacity of awareness to know ‘everything’ with knowing ‘anything’. Awareness means knowing anything that is already happening, what is actually happening, and already registered somewhere in our experience, although perhaps only dimly. I can be aware that ‘hearing’ is happening even as I register that I’m straining to make out what I’m hearing. I can become aware of the beginnings of tension in my shoulders or a fleeting thought zipping by. The more awareness there is, the more clearly these things can be known.

To be aware of anything means that nothing is excluded from awareness. There are no exceptions or things that we can’t be aware of. Typically the mind will prioritize thinking about something rather than being aware of it, often in its desire to either prolong or get rid of whatever it is worrying about like a dog with a bone. Experiencing with awareness, rather than thinking about a compelling inner story, or an overwhelming emotion such as fear or rage, means that in a small corner of my mind I know what’s happening. If I can recognise and inhabit that space, scrunched down waiting and watching patiently while the rest of the picture plays out, awareness will grow and expand out of its corner to influence what ever else is happening. Once awareness has grown, even a little, there is some ease and spaciousness in the mind. Awareness helps the mind begin to recognise where it is ‘caught’ and identified with what is happening.

Recognising identification is what awareness and wisdom do best. While the thinking mind will unhappily tie itself in knots trying to fix what is happening, in order to put it down, awareness and wisdom are willing to just ‘know’. As well as knowing what’s going on we can also know how we are relating to the experience. If that is with identification, the wisdom element recognises that this is what’s happening and knows it is not necessary to struggle. Naming something helps; this is fear, this is what rage or jealousy or longing feels like. But what’s crucial is to notice the identification going alongside the feelings.

Awareness transforms by illuminating any aspect of my experience it comes into contact with; whatever I’m experiencing can be known in a way that (eventually) allows it to be stripped of clinging, and, therefore, of suffering. Nothing is outside the scope of wise attention. When I look to why I still practice in this deceptively simple and yet profound way, what comes up are the memories of many moments of relief when the mind puts down what is causing it to suffer.

Being Right or Being Wise

Think of those occasions where you disagree with someone; you’re just not going to back down because you really believe in what you’re saying, it matters to you a lot. Things start to get a little heated as you both re-assert your point of view more strongly. Even as you remain polite you can feel your shoulder muscles getting tight and your voice and emotions mirroring your body; before you know it you are slicing and dicing their perspective with a very sharp metaphorical knife!

When we feel we’re right about something, by extension we put others in the wrong. Once we’ve done that it’s difficult to have an open dialogue. We’re much more likely to try to change their mind rather than really listen to what the other person says. And we’re sometimes scared to agree on any of their argument because, like the little boy with his finger in the Dutch dam, we fear it will be the beginning of the end of our position. One of the characteristics of delusion is inflexibility. We fix on a single point of view and can’t be open to other possibilities.

While all the Election processes have been going on the in the UK this past couple of months, and the three years of Brexit beforehand I’ve found plenty of occasions to get stuck on the pole of opinion and view. There have been moments (and longer) of self-righteousness though perhaps not as many as there could have been. This was partly as I tended to self-select by reading the Guardian newspaper which was roughly aligned with my political views, but also because I was often presented (via social media and those clever and slightly spooky algorithms) with reams of information that supported my beliefs and my prejudices.

Yes, my prejudices. Peoples Vote March Oct

I’ve written previously about cognitive biases, this time I’m interested in what could be called a value bias. Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist who looks at the very complex world of ethical decision making. In his book ‘The Righteous Mind’ he produces a universal set of five (later six) moral values that work across cultures, and then sets about testing them on real people.

Haidt is particularly interested in how these moral values play out in relation to our political views. What has been very stark in the discourse around Brexit and the recent election in the UK is how polarized it is, and how little respect there is on either side for the others position.

The lack of respect manifests as outright judgements – how could someone possibly think like that?, or think of voting for that option? It’s unbelievable! They must be stupid, or ill-informed or they don’t care about poverty/climate change/British sovereignty/health care/economic stability – take your pick.

We resort to name calling such as ‘remoaners’ or in a stunning lack of irony and self-awareness from one journalist ‘Brexiteers are fascist, liars and charlatans whose only re-course is name calling!’

We find it hard to believe that someone whom we strongly disagree with politically can have a reasonable and well thought out point of view. It’s much easier to identify with our own positive stance and dismiss the opposite position in our political ‘enemies’. Perhaps a liberal position would be to feel strongly for the plight of migrants and refugees and believe there shouldn’t be limits on them coming to Britain. This might lead liberals to reject without examination the concerns of conservatives about the effects it would have on British citizens. Conservatives tend to value the national group more highly than the global community.

Particularly on the liberal side we would probably be horrified (because of our values around caring for others) that our views and opinions betray the sort of judgements above; we’re often unaware of our harsh views or we rationalise them by saying it’s because we care so much!

What Jonathan Haidt’s book helped me appreciate was that we all have positive values, but where we are on the left/liberal/progressive or right/conservative/republican side of the political spectrum will dictate which of those values we care more about. As a liberal lefty usually aligned with the caring side of the moral high ground I was curious to see that conservatives actually care about more of the five big values than liberals.

Liberals think the moral values of Care/Harm (positive and negative values) and Fairness/Cheating are most important. They care much less about Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion and Sanctity/Degradation, but Conservatives rate each of the positive values equally highly.

While a lot can be said about each of these moral foundations, the significant point is that Liberals care about two of the values and the Conservatives care about all five. In some ways the liberal perspective is quite a simple one (care and fairness) whereas the conservative one has more competing values such as issues of loyalty to ones ‘tribe’, respecting authority and sanctity morals (often around sex). We still might not agree with how each value is expressed but perhaps it helps to recognise them. Could we learn to value each others sense of values?

There is a relationship between certainty and wrong view which Sangharakshita brings out in his teachings on Right View. Right View, he says, when held with tightness and (the feeling of) rightness is actually wrong view. When we take up a position of any kind, whether it be ‘breakfast is essential’ or ‘there is no ‘self’, we remain caught in a polarisation between something ‘right’ and something or someone else that is ‘wrong’. How much worse when we add judgement and caricature to the rhetoric such as ‘tories are bigots’ or ‘liberals are snowflakes’.

We need to bring our political views into the light of awareness. Not even just our views, but our political values. When you notice the feeling that you have right on your side let it be a signal to examine your heart and mind.

Jonathan Haidt Ted Talk

https://ed.ted.com/lessons/jonathan-haidt-on-the-moral-roots-of-liberals-and-conversatives

Jonathan Haidt ‘The Righteous Mind’