The Myth of my Life

I’m currently in the midst of a whole stream of book launches, following the publication of Uncontrived Mindfulness on 31st March this year. The most recent was Glasgow, where I was introduced by a friend I met in my first year as a practicing Buddhist. We lived and worked together in a Buddhist community and ‘right livelihood’ business when I was 24 and she was 22. She introduced me as a ‘friend for life’ – a bit like a book for life – but a living, breathing and sharing version! I was very touched; a friend for life is such a gift and having someone in my life who has known me for almost two thirds of it and shared the whole of our dharma lives, is a precious thing.

One of the many benefits of such a friendship is knowing another human being really well and also being known really well in return. In the ten minutes she spoke introducing me on zoom she shared a recollection of me, which she linked to the subject nature of my book.

Thirty-five years ago, we shared a house in London, practicing a Buddhist life with others. At the bottom of our small garden ran a train line heading towards Liverpool Street Station, one of the major transport hubs of east London. A train rumbled, screeched, or clanked past our house on average every three minutes. Each time my bedroom, which overlooked the garden, vibrated! My friend remembered me saying to her that I could tell the state of my mind by how I reacted to the trains – whether there was frustration or annoyance at being disturbed by the ‘noise’ or was there a simpler registering of what was happening as part of the landscape of the moment.

What she was pointing out was that all those years ago I was already ‘watching my mind’ and was curious about what I found out. Working with the mind in this way seemed almost to come naturally as a way of practice, and it is this strand in particular that I’ve followed through my practice within the Triratna Buddhist Community and emphasised through deep learning with Sayadaw U Tejaniya. Even though I had only been practicing for a matter of months and knew very little about the Dharma, my friend’s recollection (which I don’t recall at all!) showed a pattern linking that moment and many others over the years which resulted in my being there in Glasgow to launch my book.

Sangharakshita wrote about patterns – in life and in practice – and he related this to the quality of sampajanna. Usually, we take sampajanna to be about continuity of purpose, where we check in with to see if what we are doing is in line with our overall spiritual direction. A bit like checking a compass to make sure we’re still heading in the direction we want to go.

  Sangharakshita suggested that if we were to look back over our lives, and particularly our time as practitioners, we would see this ‘continuity of purpose ‘playing itself out. He says “it might seem uncannily as though your life has a direction of its own, independent of your conscious volition… as if there was a goal implicit in everything you did, with the goal gradually becoming clearer over time”

Once, in conversation with Sangharakshita, he asked me if I saw a connection between the figure I visualised in my meditation practice, and satipatthana mindfulness practice. Immediately I said I did. He seemed unsurprised. Yes, he said, we each have a doorway or gateway to Awakening, and whatever practices we do are expressions of that aspiration. Be it the gateway of ‘beauty’ or ‘wisdom’, or – in my case – ‘truth’, it doesn’t really matter; they are all different paths to the same spiritual goal.

Another way of looking at this is as a life’s myth within us which is just waiting to unfold. Perhaps there is something in us needing even just slightly favourable conditions to enable it to grow and strengthen. And when we look back at our lives this trend can be discernible, even manifesting within us children, expressed through our interests, or the superheroes we loved. It is what has made us who we are. The psychologist James Hillman called this patterning a ‘master current’ running through our lives. A thread of meaning, of value, or of love – we’ll have our own ‘flavour’ to this current running through us.

I sometimes lead a meditation connecting with the master current of what is deepest and most creative within us. The current is not static and can ebb and flow through different time frames and inner landscapes. Sometimes it’s a small stream that occasionally dries up or even disappears though it’s never completely dormant. At other times, the current of goodness, or truth or awareness swells to a vast river pulsing and alive. It carries our intention to practice.

Can you look back on your life and discern the current of it? Or have a sense of being oriented to a particular quality? – the gateway you’re continually stepping through that will take you to Awakening.

Here’s a link to the Master current meditation.

Uncontrived Mindfulness – publication day!

Well today is finally the day when my first book is published. I celebrated with a bike ride on a beautiful day in the Shropshire hills and countryside.

I was thinking while riding in the sunshine, that a book is a bit like a village! You know the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and I think birthing a book is the same. So many people contribute over a long period of time. Starting with my English teachers at school (one memorable essay/story about the end of the world because the sun was dying) and my sisters to whom I’d tell stories I’d made up. And my Mum who read voraciously and passed on her enthusiasm.

And along the way, the readers, the encouragement and feedback offered. Short stories, detective stories, ideas still hiding in the back of my mind for a children’s story (some of you will remember ‘Truffle Pup’!) set in the mountains of Aragon. And a solitary retreat where a complex ‘dharma fiction’ idea was born and is yet to be nursed into a reality.

Finally to this book, to the friend who suggested that my retreat leading material was a natural structure for a book. And another good friend (who became my editor) who said ‘well, writers write!’ to my failure to get on with the actual job of writing, providing me with the impetus to come home from that meeting and set myself a writing timetable.

To the Trustees at Windhorse Publications who thought the initial chapters showed promise. And the team at WP who have been consistently patient and helpful with my inexperience about all aspects of the process of how a book comes into being.

To those (including some of you) who I know sponsored the book, making it more likely it would make it to publication. It’s here!

What comes now are a series of book launches on zoom. These will be associated with various Triratna Centres across the UK and Europe, and then spreading further in accord with later publication dates. With the link below you can find out if I’m going to be speaking anywhere near you, you can purchase the book or ebook, and you can watch a little video with me and Dhammamegha, the director of Windhorse Publications talking about the book.

Prioritizing the Mind of Ease

The past few months have felt like surround sound psycho education, an immersion in a new perspective, becoming increasingly familiar with it. This is enabling an increased sensitivity to my internal experience and how to track it, while mastering the concepts and vocabulary from a range of different disciplines and practises. These include Somatic Experiencing, EMDR and an online training in Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness. ‘Psycho education’ is important in understanding something of the way the brain and nervous system function, and how these subtle physical processes can be interrupted and knocked off track very easily into fight, flight and freeze.

Recently I was trying to describe the relationship between what I was learning and my dharma framework. I said I had a whole map of the mind that I worked with awareness and wisdom practice, but there were a couple of countries I visited regularly within the globe where I didn’t speak the language or know the customs. This articulated something of the experience of being with very familiar painful states of mind and body but not understanding how they kept arising and persisting year after year however I practiced with them.

It’s been helpful too, to see some connections between meditation, especially the receptive practice I’m trained in, and more psychophysical approaches.

One of the features of trauma sensitive mindfulness is that we are always ‘in choice’. This is because some of the traditional focuses of meditation practice – on the breath or the body – can be very triggering if you’ve experienced certain kinds of trauma. So, it is important that you have options and can chose a focus that really does conduce to relaxation and stability of mind rather than its opposite. I’ll describe a couple of different areas where we can be ‘in choice’.

Usually, a meditation teacher would lead a practice with a specific focus such as the breath, or a body scan where you pay attention to each part of the body as it’s named by the leader. But in TSM you would always offer more than one option as to where someone might focus their attention. Typically, this might include the breath, or a neutral part of the body like sensations in your hands, or perhaps sounds in the environment around you.

Uncontrived Mindfulness, and the receptive approach that I learned from Sayadaw U Tejaniya doesn’t specify any single or particular ‘object’ to rest the attention with. The object is seen as quite unimportant, irrelevant even; the only ‘job’ of the breath or sound or body sensation is to support awareness becoming more continuous. So, the focus will often be quite momentary and light moving to different aspects of experience but with a continuity of mindfulness. So receptive practice is – in this way – very compatible with trauma sensitive meditation.

Another way choice and flexibility is encouraged is through the posture we take up. If there is an over-emphasis on sitting (either on the floor or in a chair) and, in particular, sitting very still, we can end up overriding instincts that are trying to keep body and mind feeling safe and the nervous system at ease. Being able to observe very subtle emotional tensions and make mental and physical adjustments can help avoid further tension and rigidity, bringing about some equilibrium.

It’s made me realise how even though Sayadaw U Tejaniya in Burma has studied very little outside of his own monastic tradition, he could recognise a ‘dharma casualty’ at 50 paces! That’s a flippant way of saying he has learned and now instinctively knows what’s helpful for a mind to practice well. Such things as relaxation, flexibility and self-trust all feature strongly in the approach he has developed from his own teacher.

Sometimes, in our desire to push through, to ‘get somewhere’ in practice, we try and keep to the rules to race to our goal. Instead, with more sensitivity, though we might feel we’re letting ourselves off the hook, think of the long game. We’re setting up conditions that support relaxation and presence. Whether we do that lying down or moving a bit in meditation is beside the point. We learn to judge for ourselves what a helpful quality of mind in and out of meditation feels like. Once we’ve connected with how to bring those conditions into being, we’ll be able to do so more and more often until it becomes second nature.

Worth taking a little time over don’t you think?

Some questions and answers from a recent retreat.

Just a few of the questions from the Beautiful Mind retreat held online over New Year 2020.

Could you sum up, if possible, in three main points what you’d like us to take away from the retreat to help us deepen our practice of mindfulness.

My rather active mind kept coming up with different groupings of 3 main points. There were these three points but then there were also these three points but in the end I settled on these three!

  1. The importance of recognising that we can be aware of anything and at anytime. That awareness is always available, if we remember. In a sense this is already more than one point. We can be aware of anything – and awareness is always available. And, part of the same point, is that mindfulness always has an effect on the quality of the mind.  
  2. The second of the three points is to remember to ‘settle back’. If you like, we’re remembering the quality of energy, the quality of effort to use, to settle into being aware. It’s a very simple idea but I think it has quite a big effect. We relax into the present moment, and we relax into awareness.
  3. And then the third thing is Right View. Just checking in with ourselves: how am I relating to experience? And there not being a right answer to this, we’re checking to see where the mind is coming from, what is its point of view? Is the mind relating to what’s happening with this quite strong personal sense? Or is there a lessening of that subjectivity and more objectivity? Right View is always encouraging us to train the ‘dharma lens’, the wisdom perspective – and strengthening that. We learn a particular application of the dharma perspective from this practice but of course we already have a lot of dharma knowledge from our broader practice and our study of the dharma. So in the meditation it’s really just accessing that Right View on a moment to moment basis. We’re recognising the lens through which we’re seeing what’s happening.

Can you say something about the relevance of this practice to our broader training within Triratna, especially Ordination training?

Sangharakshita talked of us needing to ‘watch our minds’ and that’s always useful, referencing back to awareness, referencing back to the importance of mindfulness. And perhaps particularly in daily life practice, we can ask “what is the mind knowing?”. What is the mind knowing? Within a communication with someone or sitting down to eat or answering an email. We can know what the attitude in the mind is towards what’s happening. So all those sort of activities can be known with broader mindfulness.

Again, with spiritual receptivity in relation to the quality of effort or energy used, seeing when we’re using more energy than is needed or is helpful. Being able to settle back. It’s important for all of us within our practice to have an element of ‘Just Sitting’ or more formless practice. And while this Satipatthana practice we’ve been doing is more of a ‘just sitting with bells on’ – that’s sometimes how I describe it, there is a need to balance activity and conceptual understanding, it’s essential also to have an element of receptivity from just sitting type practice.

There are many other relevant area,s but I’ll leave it with these two for now. One useful document is some new guidelines for Ordination training that talk about the need to have ways of working with difficult mental states that arise, and the practice of ‘staying with’ without buying into the emotional state and without supressing it is very useful.

A few days ago, you talked about awareness being impartial, while also having some understanding of what does or does not lead to suffering. You said if you allow what’s arising to arise, at some point, when there’s enough awareness, it will say ‘you don’t need to go there’.

The question is – can awareness lead to skilful mental states spontaneously without going through a choosing process?

This is actually a very big question, because it brings in the whole area of ‘choosing’ and deciding. It brings in the whole area of volition, and to what extent we ever choose or decide. And if what we take to be ‘me’ or ‘myself’ choosing or deciding, if, as the Buddha says, there is a big question mark over that then what is choosing, who is choosing or deciding.

There are different models of mind within the Buddhist tradition and we’ve been working within one on this retreat. Subhuti in his book ‘Mind in Harmony’ and Sangharakshita in ‘Know Your Mind’ are using a very similar model – that of mental factors. Volition, or we could say intention, or that move to action or samskaras or mental formations – whichever word we use – we mostly act through our habitual behaviours. What we think of as our choices are often more inevitable than we might think. Because they’re made on the basis of certain mental factors working in the mind, and they’ve been working in different formations, they line up in different faculties in the mind, in the moment.

We have energy behind our habits and choices, we have volitional energy behind our habits. We also have the present moment, and to the extent we can be aware in the present moment we can influence what happens. It’s often what’s talked about in a slightly different way as the point of freedom, or ‘the gap’.

I almost see it as if you’ve got these little characters in any given moment. You’ve got the character of ‘little greed’ manifesting in the moment, or you’ve got ‘little frustration’ or ‘little aversion’ and you’ve got lots of these characters including ones like a certain amount of calm. And like with the 5 spiritual faculties we’ve been working with and with mindfulness, if it’s present, we have some sense of what is happening with all these characters. So mindfulness is quite influential in the present moment.

So, to relate all this to the question – can mindfulness lead to skilful states spontaneously without going through a choosing process? Well mindfulness is a skilful mental state, so if it’s present, it will have some influence on the moment, but it also depends quite a lot on those historical, habitual mental factors and which of those are also present. Perhaps in the moment in question if you’ve been meditating for a while or you’ve been on retreat, you can feel you’re in a positive mental state, well, there will be a lot of positive mental factors in the mind in that moment. There are skilful factors, including awareness itself which is a skilful mental factor. The presence of awareness leads to the encouraging and prioritizing of those skilful factors in the mind, and takes the mind in a more positive direction without going through a conceptual ‘choosing’ process. Because the orientation of your being in that moment is supported by a preponderance of positive qualities this is influencing whatever decision is made.

As I said, this area of intention is a big one and on a longer retreat, probably an in-person retreat we would address intention more fully and practice with it. The more awareness we have the more, the more kalyana, beautiful qualities of mind the more ‘choice’ we have over following a direction that is in-line with our values.

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 ( 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.




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’.


‘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.


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