Sense and Sensitivity

Some of our senses are much more obvious than others. We might not remember to be aware of ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ but once we do, they are right there. There is nothing to do. It’s the same with ‘touch’. There is usually some sensation impinging from the clothes or the sun or a breeze on our skin, the touch of my finger tips on the keyboard as I type or the glasses sitting on my nose as I peer at the computer screen.

The senses of ‘taste’ and ‘smell’ are usually towards the background of our experience and not well defined unless there is a strong stimulus. These stimuli tend to be short lived and attached to particular activities. For example, taste and smell are vivid when I’m eating, or as now when my partner is downstairs cooking our lunch. Or when I walk past a bad drain smell or drive through a mile or 2 of silage covered fields.

As with any of our senses, it’s easy to find that one of the 3 ‘poisons’, our main ways of reacting to experience, is in the driving seat rather than awareness. If the object is pleasant (as with a tasty lunch) we like it, if it’s unpleasant (the silage) the nose wrinkles before we’ve even registered an aversion to the smell) and if it doesn’t register very strongly (most of our tasting and smelling) we don’t notice, we’re unaware of shades of our experience.

Just occasionally there is a smell or a taste that is there more of the time and this is what I’ve been experiencing lately. There has been a fair amount of nose wrinkling up to this point so it’s taken me a while to take the smell/taste combo as an object of experience, to be able to observe it with interest and know it for what it is. The flavour has been more the faint, unnoticed ‘I wish that would go away’.

My partner and I moved into our new house about 6 weeks ago. The downstairs walls had a damp problem so we had them treated and re-plastered just before we moved in. For various reasons we’ve waited to paint over the plaster after it had dried. See if you can summon up what plaster dust smells like? That, in itself, is surprisingly difficult to do – to try and use the mind sense to approximate one of the physical senses – but try anyway. You’d think the smell would be fairly neutral but if you add in time (repeated exposure when I’m on the ground floor) and other conditions (one room is still quite damp) it has become quite unpleasant.

Smelling and tasting are quite complex. With smelling you’re breathing in something. This brings in the notion of space (inside and outside my body). It’s got all the way inside me which also leads to me feeling that I’m tasting plaster dust as well as smelling it. I can feel queasy and my lungs protest, just slightly. There is no getting away from the unpleasant aspects of it and I’ll be glad when we’ve painted over the offending surfaces. But the fact I only register ‘smelling’ on the in-breath makes it a more visibly changing object, so with the right attitude, there can also be interest in what’s happening.

Another knock on effect is that I’ve become more aware of smell and taste and how they occur more often than I realise. The smell of spring onions when clearing the salad bowl after lunch or of fabric conditioner on wet clothes or the bringing together of taste and smell in the sweet richness of an afternoon cookie.

Not noticing these things matters for 2 reasons. Firstly if there is a lack of awareness then if there is some sort of reaction in the form of wanting, not wanting or zoning out, then I miss that too. And so it grows!

Secondly, life is more rich, vivid, colourful and closer to reality if we’re noticing what’s actually happening.

Less greed, aversion and delusion and more present moment, vivid awareness are positive conditions for wisdom to grow.

Day Dream Believer.

Day dreaming should be placed on the ‘quality of life’ index quotes Michael Harris, author of ‘Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World’. So important is it for the mind to have time to idle (not be idle!) it should be an essential part of being human.

Day dreaming generally doesn’t get a good press and is usually associated with laziness. When I was a child I remember being chastised for it. I was often told off for wasting time and not being productive. Running around at the local recreation ground was fine. Devouring books, doing my homework and helping with the washing up were all accepted, if not insisted upon. Sitting around ‘doing nothing’ was seen as somehow suspicious and I was usually directed to ‘go and find something to do’. Perhaps in our largely secular culture we still believe the Christian message ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’.

Even in meditation a lot of emphasis can be put on the effort we use. ‘Doing’ something. Paying attention to something such as the breath. Or ‘cultivating’ loving kindness. Day dreaming in meditation is not seen as a productive way to spend an hour a day. It won’t help you get Enlightened. Or will it?

Of course, making an effort is essential in meditation, albeit, the right sort of effort. The quality of effort is of such a subtle balance that the Buddha apparently said that we are working with ‘right effort’ until the moment of Enlightenment. Intentionality too is important in directing the mind towards an object so it can calm and stabilise. But once it’s calm another aspect of mind is highly significant: we need openness and relaxation of mind. This, at times, can be akin to the day dreaming mind, which at its best wanders freely, but has some idea what is happening within it.

Most likely we experience this type of open mind outside of formal meditation, when we stare out to sea entranced with the point where ocean and sky meet, or lie in a wild flower meadow on a blue sky day. (Whether we make time for these things is another matter!) Or when we hear a poem without understanding it cognitively but knowing the ‘truth’ it is expressing. We let the mind loose whilst we’re just able to keep an eye on it. Awareness without control.

Harris quotes Albert Einstein as saying “the day dreaming minds ability to link things is the only pathway towards fresh ideas”. We day dream or gently follow our musings, ambling along a streamside path, to go beyond the limits of the rational mind. We let the mind roam without limit to discover new pathways. It’s well known that the scientific breakthroughs Einstein and Isaac Newton made, didn’t just come from the many hours of striving and thinking, but from being willing to inhabit the wilderness of not knowing. Einstein had confidence in this process saying ‘ the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.’

If we can bring this deep openness and relaxation, as well as confidence, to follow our musings, this has implications for meditation. When we set up the conditions for wisdom we are looking to go beyond what we know. It’s helpful to recognise that because we then stop trying to think our way to Nirvana. We live with the question: how can I discover something, the nature of which is unknown to me? We have to allow ourselves to let go, to be ‘lost’ to go beyond the known.

This is aided through allowing the mind to idle, having times of solitude where we can be free to think our own thoughts, follow through our own musings, make ultra-fine mental connections to intuit that leap between known and completely unknown. We need to escape the hyper-vigilance of the rational mind. The mind that always wants to know, to control and direct and brings everything back to ‘me’.

So, perhaps daydreaming alone won’t get you Enlightened but giving the non-rational and non-utilitarian side of your being some energy may well help. Learn to draw or play a musical instrument. Spend time alone and in nature. Give your rational mind time off to play.

And, above all, practice being present and aware with a delicate butterfly touch.

Perception: the unreliable witness.

We’ve probably all seen films or read books where a character turns out to be quite different from how we thought he or she was. Whether the deception is intentional, or whether they are unaware of the false picture they’re painting, the viewer or reader eventually comes to see, not only the character more clearly but also the world that has been coloured and shaped by the narrator’s perspective.

This device is used to stunning effect in the film ‘The Usual Suspects’. The character of Verbal Kint, played by Kevin Spacey, weaves a story from the police station office, where he is being questioned, to help piece together aspects of a major crime. Kint is under suspicion, but such is his skill at creating an alternative reality that the police let him walk free, realising moments too late that he is responsible for everything that has happened. Kint doesn’t just fabricate a story but uses the environment around him to draw in information to fortify his narrative. There is one scene where the detective, who has interviewed him for many hours, realises this. Looking around his office walls which are covered in memos, lists and names his eyes alight on dozens of references that Kint has used to concoct his fiction, and in a sickening moment, the penny drops.


I have become quite fascinated with the idea of the ‘unreliable witness’, sometimes known as the ‘unreliable narrator’. The former is more likely to be found giving evidence in a court of law whereas the narrator, is the stuff of fiction. A third type is the ‘eye witness’ and since the advent of DNA testing, it’s been discovered that eyewitness testimony is very unreliable, and is wrong in a massive 73% of cases. When, as in the US, the result can be a death sentence, this is a huge issue.

There are intriguing websites which list films and books where the narrator’s ability to reliably tell the truth is compromised. This might be due to memory loss (Memento) or mental illness (A Beautiful Mind, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or because the narrator is a child being protected by a parent (Jack, in ‘Room’) or the narrator has incomplete information (Rebecca). One of the most famous unreliable narrator in fiction is Nabokov’s character Humbert Humbert whose guilt over his feelings for the teenage Lolita distorts his ability to be honest with himself.

Sometimes the narrator is intentionally creating a false picture as in ‘The Usual Suspects’. At other times, as with most of the examples above, it is unintentional and to a large extent woven into the fabric of ordinary human beings living our day to day lives.


What do I mean by this? If you are an adult with a reasonable memory, in good mental health, with the facts to hand why should you doubt your ability to accurately re-tell a story or assess a situation?

Partly, I’m referring to changes in the way that scientists understand how the brain works, and particularly how memory functions. Scientists used to think the brain retrieved a memory that was as vivid and accurate as a photo. These days it’s thought that memory is more like a flood of partial fragments that come together in the present in subtly different forms each time the memory is provoked.

This second model tallies, to some extent, with what the Buddha had to say about the nature of mind, memory and perception. The Buddha didn’t think that perception was fixed and intact but a living changing, ephemeral process in response to a prompt or stimulus of some kind. The process might be images and language, or perhaps a feeling tone accompanied by a body memory which might be a spreading warmth from a pleasant memory or a raised heart beat. What is happening in the present moment, and how we are in that moment, will influence what is remembered.

So we cannot take our memories to be accurate representations of what has happened in the past, even the recent past. We are all unreliable narrators to our own lives and unreliable witnesses to others.

The present moment is no better. Our perceptual processes take short cuts with our raw sense data so we can recognise familiar objects in our world. We’ve learned over time that the flat brown shape with a hole underneath, that we eat breakfast off, is a table. The brown, curvy thing that we sit on is a chair. If we had to work it out every time it would be a very time consuming and frustrating process.

We know this through observing people who lose their sight at a young age and regain it much later. They can see but they don’t recognise (re-cognise) and make sense of what they are seeing. They haven’t learned concepts to know, for example, that the set of straight lines in front of them is actually something called ‘stairs’ and that it’s possible to climb them! We learn depth perception as children and to create a ‘thing’ (table, set of stairs, person) out of our sense experience, and then give it a name.

The process of perception and conceptualisation is conditioned by all the experiences we’ve had through our lives. It is also conditioned by the mind-state in the present moment. A mind with wisdom will recognise accurately what arises within it as a mirror reflects clearly what is seen. Alternately, distorted mind-states of greed, ignorance and aversion will conceal the true nature of what it’s aware of, just as you can’t see well through a dusty and dirty mirror.

Mostly these shortcuts of perception give us huge advantages, but they have limitations. We’re constantly relating to an idea about our experience, rather than knowing what the experience is directly. The implication to our Dharma life is that we’re usually unaware that the concepts we live by also govern our views and assumptions: for example, the big assumption about ‘me’, who ‘I’ am; the shortcut that says “all these experiences are happening to Me.” Our sense of self is not something we experience through our senses, but only through our thoughts and ideas about that sense experience.

So you could say perception itself is the unreliable witness and one that fools us every day.

Everyday Opportunity

This week I had one and a half teeth out. The roots of the second one will have to come out another day. It wasn’t pleasant, but I stayed calm during the 20 minutes or so my mouth was wide open, most of the time filled with fingers and surgical pliers.

During the 4 days that followed there was some pain and a number of pain-killers taken. There were also several photos taken of the blood clot/hole/grey ‘granulating’ matter on top of the hole and a certain amount of anxiety culminating in another trip to the dentists to find out I was not suffering from the dreaded ‘dry socket’ infection!

The contrast between my calm with the more acute but short-term dental chair moments, and the restless anxiety that followed during the week after, reminded me of a friend’s explanation of why we often cope better with more demanding and immediate situations (being chased by a tiger!) than with more on-going difficulty (noisy neighbours). He says the imminent challenge changes our consciousness and pulls something more out of us. Perhaps our hormones get involved too enabling adrenaline and nor-adrenaline to help us meet the situation. In contrast, the longer-term issues are dealt with by our everyday state of mind; we get a bit fed up, worn down by the discomfort or restrictions, we get into waiting to feel better, and hoping it will go away.

When I’m in the dentists chair or during some other ‘peak’ moment, whether of difficulty or when the pressure is on a different consciousness comes about because I am more in the moment. Being chased by the mythical tiger, there is no option but to be fully present and run, or be eaten.

The anxiety about pain and infection is about ‘futuring’. I’m worried I won’t be able to lead my next retreat because of a sore and infected mouth so I spend more time thinking about whether I should contact the dentist again, and making google searches to see what should be happening. Fear, anxiety and hope, even in small doses, project me into the future and into the realm of concepts, or ideas about what might happen.

By its nature it is not always possible to live in the heightened state of just responding in the present moment. Planning needs to happen. I need to book trains in advance if I don’t want to pay a fortune. Keeping an eye on whether my socket is healing is sensible but what is ‘extra’ is being carried away by imagined dramas. There are plenty of helpful ways of being more present and interested in what’s actually happening and just doing what is necessary.

The teaching about karma at the moment of death is sometimes presented in terms of a horse race. Death proximate karma (traditionally seen as the most significant) starts off well, Weighty karma has real power propelling it along the race course. But it’s Habitual karma, with its millions of repeated thoughts, words and actions over a life-time, who makes headway over the long haul. This points to something important. The Dharma life is not so much about our peak moments of spiritual experiences. Whilst they are ‘weighty’ and important, in the long run, what we do with our minds everyday is more significant. Do we bring a wise attention to our reactions of craving, hatred and delusion? Do I really see clearly when  their opposites, generosity, love and wisdom, are flourishing in the mind and heart.

So while it’s good that I can watch my mind during all sorts of unpleasant moments and can pull out the spiritual stops when under pressure, it’s not enough. What about when I’m tired or just a bit low or all the other moments when I’m going about my life without much awareness or wisdom?

Ordinary mind needs to be transformed at every level to determine whether the race is back towards Samsara or on the right track to Nirvana.



Supermarket Mystery

In December I made up an on-line order to be delivered from Sainsbury’s. It included one of my favourite food items which I’d been delighted to find on offer. And because it was Christmas (which I don’t celebrate), a ‘holiday’ (not that I work in the traditional sense) and because it was cheaper than usual I put it on the list as a ‘treat’.

Around the same time, I’d been investigating ‘craving’ with more intensity. There was more interest in what was happening in the mind that ‘wanted’ something. But clearly, there were things like the shopping list moment that slipped through the net.

At times craving seems to have a certain authority and ‘rightness’ that bypasses rationality. It doesn’t occur to me to question it. Luckily this time my partner was on hand to draw attention to my blind spot. He knows about my weight loss diet and me practising with the ‘wanting’ mind.

“Ah, salted caramel ice-cream. Are you sure you want that?”

You have to know how much I like this stuff. All creaminess and sweetness with a salty edge. A perfect fat and sugar combination.

Of course, I want it, that’s why I put it on the list. It was cheap. It’s Christmas!

Oh, craving, wanting. That’s what’s happening here, right? Rationalisations too. Mmm.

In a moment the reasons not to buy and consume came centre stage.

Weight gain when there was already plenty of extra food to navigate through visiting relatives over the holiday period. It was a moment of ‘greed’ that I didn’t need, strengthening the tendency to further greed.

Just in that moment, I was clear ice-cream was coming off the list. However, I decided to play with it further. I sat down in front of my computer, an image of a big tub of the stuff on the screen, just feeling out the pleasure seeking, grasping mind reaching with a big spoon into full on mental tasting.

This might sound like someone’s idea of torture but actually, it was fascinating seeing how I’d been ‘caught’ like a fish on a hook by the attractive idea of this particular object. And to see how much it was all happening in the mind. Without any ice-cream actually present!

There were memories in the form of thoughts and images and these whooshy, fizzy pleasurable, reaching out feelings and sensations. And the thoughts and the feelings seemed to be feeding each other but when there was awareness they didn’t grow. In fact, there seemed to be a space between them. They weren’t connected after all. What could seem inevitable – that the thoughts and feelings combined would lead to a growth in craving which I would then act on – was clearly not.

A further thought led me to see that the lack of inevitability of craving meant not just for this particular object but for everything I craved. That sort of relationship with experience just wasn’t necessary. It was a little sobering to think I might not go after the things I enjoyed but it was also tremendously liberating. I wouldn’t be dictated to by the whims of the ‘wanting’ mind.

In the weeks following this small incident, I noticed 2 things. One was an unusually strong sense of well-being and relaxation, especially around things that I usually experienced as stressful e.g. solo long distance driving trips.

The second thing was I found myself visiting supermarkets and standing in front of their pudding counters for a minute or so and then walking out. At first, I thought I was torn between consuming and not consuming but after a while, I came to a different conclusion. Again and again, I was letting the mind go through the process of seeing how craving wasn’t necessary, letting it get more familiar with it. There wasn’t a sense of giving up something but more that it didn’t make sense to have it.

I would love to finish with that last paragraph, but there is further to go. Various sweet things have been relished and consumed recently. The commitment to exploring the process has gone off the boil. Craving has been rearing its head without awareness and right view being ready with interest and discernment. There was an opportunity and I took it up only partially. So, I’m re-making that commitment to investigating craving, particularly in the form of sweet edibles.

I will let you know what happens.

Blessings of Boredom

I have half an hour before viewing yet another house. So my mind is half on that and half sitting at my desk doing what I call ‘flicking’. Flicking through emails, half setting up a bank payment and then changing my mind when I see how much is in my account, checking my ‘to do’ list and not quite settling on doing any one thing. Before I know it the time has gone all but a few minutes. Sound familiar?

This time the few minutes is going into starting this blog because I’m trying to be more conscious of this time wasting habit. It can have the positive function of helping me settle to one thing rather than expecting the mind to instantly ‘perform’. The novelist Doris Lessing found procrastination activities (which included a post-breakfast nap) essential to her writing process. But it can also be a symptom of something Subhuti calls being ‘occupied without being engaged’.

This phrase, from one of his talks on ‘Just Sitting’, really resonated with me. As well as all sorts of internet activities it can be when I’m reading a book even though I know it isn’t that great or well written or interesting but I keep going with it. It might be dull but the mind wants to be occupied. Substitute your own poison – it could be TV, box sets, magazines, internet stuff, snacks…

Subhuti says the mind that is fed in this way will tend towards addiction, seeking more occupation and stimulation but without true interest and engagement. I recognise this from my own strong compulsion towards reading and not always having an eye to quality. I read everyday and I never go away, even overnight, without a book. Now I own a kindle I have several hundred books always and instantly available.

There is ‘dukkha’, a subtle dissatisfaction, in this lack of engagement but the activity tends to cover it up. The way to interest and engagement isn’t to force me to do something from my to-do list or some meaningful activity. Instead, I have to be prepared to be with this somewhat bored mind without the cover up TV, book, Facebook, on-line news etc.

So it’s prompted me to use the time in a different way. I’ve taken to lying on the couch sometimes when I feel the urge to retreat into a novel. Also when I’ve got resistance to ‘doing’ the various things on my list. I do nothing and stay with the unoccupied and unengaged mind. It’s actually quite satisfying. After half an hour or so, watching my thoughts and feelings the mind quality brightens and becomes more aware and I’m usually ready to engage with a writing assignment or a stash of emails.

It is as if the mind knows it doesn’t want to be so occupied. It needs time, more time than I give it, without stimulation. It seems to like having a bit more space. It can then think its own thoughts and think new things about its experience. I’ve enjoyed investigating this mind quality. I recognise an aspect connected with the fetter of ‘rites and rituals’. A sliding through life filling up time where even useful and beneficial activities can become just things to get done. ‘Going Through the Motions’ mind. It takes just a little more effort to be alive to my life and even on occasion to be surprised by it.

There’s a series of novels I love (and definitely worth reading) called The Skull Mantra series by Eliot Pattison. They are set in Tibet and one of the characters is a Lama who has spent most of his life meditating in high mountain caves. After a visit to the towns of the plateau, he talks about the worldly mindset as ‘living to be old, not true’. He is baffled by a life where it seems people just want to safely navigate to its end.

For a while, this was my mantra. I wanted to live to be true, not old. To live a meaningful life, an engaged life. A life that took risks and stood up for things I hold dear. Regularly spending time with a mind that isn’t present and that clocks off into mediocrity doesn’t fit. So what is going on?

When I 21 I was involved in a skydiving incident. It was one of those situations where I wasn’t hurt but I very nearly died. At the moment I realised I was going to die I was falling at terminal velocity (about 200km/120mph) and visible was a breadth of horizon indicating I was far too close to the ground. After the thoughts ‘dead, death, dying’ had whipped through my mind, in one compressed fraction of a moment, I remembered I had a reserve parachute and pulled the rip cord.

On a standard safe jump, the parachute should be open 1,800 feet above the ground. Mine was open approximately 100 feet from the ground. Treetop height according to some observers. It was about as low as you can go and survive.

Until the moment I pulled the rip cord I’d always thought I had a fairly wispy hold on life. I would have described myself as not having a strong survival instinct and I took a lot of physical risks to try to feel more alive. But once I’d escaped from the ‘brain lock’ paralysis, into the present moment and understanding of my predicament, there was an immediate reaction; I banged out that reserve.

I wanted to live. In Buddhist terms – bhava tanha, wanting to become (again) or to persist. To have a future. But what I was more familiar with in myself was – vi bhava tanha. Negation, not wanting to become or to persist. To stop existing. I think there are hints of the nihilist worldview in being occupied without being engaged, without caring enough what happens to us or our world. In practice, we talk a lot about desire and craving. With vibhava and in nihilism there is the desire not to be. Not to exist. A turning away from engagement with life. Just getting through it.

In most of us this won’t manifest in its extreme of suicide but in moments of malaise, depression, pleasure seeking or a feeling of meaninglessness. The power of mental and emotional habits. It’s hard to touch the preciousness of life in these moments if we’re not aware of them and just go with the habit or resist it. Taking the time to connect with such moments of boredom and disinterest ironically can enrich experience and bring and measure of joy and meaning.

This is why I’m alive!

I Write What I Like

I have in mind to write a novel. Whether this will ever come about, I don’t know. I know it’s a complex and ambitious novel and I’ve no idea if I can pull it off. One of the themes in the novel is courage and it is in part inspired by my admiration for certain people none of whom I’ve met except through their writing or those who’ve written about them.

One such person is Steve Biko who was a writer and anti-apartheid activist in South Africa. He founded the Black Consciousness Movement. In 1977, when he was 31, he was beaten to death in police custody. I’ve borrowed the title of this blog piece from his book ‘I Write What I Like’ which is a collection of essays he wrote as President of the South African Student Union until banned from publishing his words in 1971.

Writing what he liked was a way of saying what he liked, of speaking out against injustice and brutality. Through his writing he could reach more people and inspire them to realise they too could speak out or even that they could think differently, not in the same old ways. They could think what they liked.

It’s a strange idea that we can’t think what we want to; that fear of the consequences might affect what we think in the privacy of our own minds. But, I think, once we’ve thought more radically or controversially or more truthfully it’s hard not to communicate those thoughts to others. There is an impetus to share what’s valuable, meaningful and vital to us. Sometimes those thoughts are voiced despite great risk to our personal safety. Words are then out in the world and can be acted on.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar were 2 men who spoke out of the passion of their thoughts and beliefs and they both changed the world; Dr King with the Civil Rights Movement in the US and Dr Ambedkar in India abandoning the destructive Hindu Caste System for Buddhism with half a million ‘ex-untouchable’ Dalits following him.

I love Biko’s phrase ‘I Write What I Like’. It is simple and yet so powerful. He is taking an essentially human freedom (of speech) to speak about freedom for all. To me these words are saying “This is who I am, this is what is important to me and no one can take that away even if they take my life away. There is no hiding who I am”. It is a celebration of a life of value.

What stops me writing or saying or thinking what I like? Any number of things; embarrassment, fear of disagreements, fear of appearing critical or insensitive. Fear of standing out and feeling exposed. Fear of getting it wrong.

Lots of ‘fear’ as you can see but none of it involves a fear for my life! But those smaller consequences can loom large in the mind. What others think about us can influence us hugely.

The writer Vera Brittain very publicly lost her popularity before the second world war through speaking out about the danger Hitler presented to a country not ready to hear it. She never regretted her many letters to editors of newspapers and lived with the loss of good opinion for years. It was only after the war when Hitlers ‘hit list’ was printed and she was on it that people realised she hadn’t been unpatriotic after all. The ‘worldly winds’ of praise and blame didn’t sway her from what she believed needed to be said.

Noticing what’s happening in the mind means, at least some of the time, I don’t buy into the popularity contest of group values. I try to be clear in my own mind what I think and even when it goes against the prevailing winds I’ll say it. Sometimes there is more of a ‘feel the fear and say it anyway’.

Because the reward is the winds of freedom and the cool breeze of equanimity. Awareness supports this freedom of mind and heart and there is nothing else that feels quite like it.

Pain: the gift nobody wants

On a recent retreat, there were some moments in meditation that stood out. Sitting with body pain that at a certain point was known by the mind as just ‘sensation’ and quite distinct from the knowing of ‘unpleasant’. A second before the 2 had been conjoined and the overall flavour was of unpleasant sensations. Though I couldn’t really feel it there was some flavour of aversion towards the experience that kept body and mind bound together. What changed that could be called ‘wisdom’ or wise attending. The pain was no longer pain but an awake, curious mind knowing physical sensation and the mental factor of vedana, or ‘feeling’.

Several years ago I read a book with the title I’ve taken for this blog piece. The author was a surgeon named Paul Brand who along with his wife, a nurse, worked in India as a medical missionary in the 1950’s. The book is an account of his relationship to pain and suffering and the insights that emerged from working with patients with leprosy. These (medical) insights paved the way for a different way of understanding and treating diseases such as diabetes. It is a fascinating and deeply humane book about an unpopular subject.

He starts by describing an interaction with Tanya, a 4 year old patient. The little girl looks healthy but her feet are ulcerated to the point of bone being visible. She shows no distress as the doctor gently probes the infected area. He explains to Tanya’s mother that her child has a rare genetic condition known as ‘cognitive indifference to pain’. If she burns or cuts herself she would feel some pressure or tingling but these sensations are not unpleasant to her. She does not feel pain and has no mental construct of pain. And because she is so young and quite enjoys the drama of how her parents react to her injuries and has no understanding of the implications she will damage herself deliberately.

By the age of 11, through a mixture of intentional and unintentional injuries, and lacking the warning signs of discomfort to protect an injury (i.e. by shifting weight onto another joint or limb), Tanya’s existence is pitiful. She is a double amputee. She’s lost most of her fingers to continuous ulcers and infections. Because movements don’t cause her pain she has frequently dislocated her elbows, permanently damaging them. It is a sad, sad life. And all because she cannot feel pain.

After reading this book I understood better the protective nature of pain. How, actually, rather than being something just to avoid, we cannot do very well without it. Usually (not all cases such as phantom pain or the pain from fibromyalgia) it’s a crucial warning system that there is something we need to look after or look out for. We learn early on in our lives to try to protect ourselves from pain and most of us experience a burn or breaking a limb or chronic back pain or toothache as very unpleasant. We don’t tend to experience pain as a ‘mental construct’ but as something immediate and visceral.

In Dharma practice, we talk a lot about working with what’s unpleasant, difficult and painful whether emotional/mental pain or physical discomfort. We talk about ‘being with things as they are’. We don’t talk about pain being a ‘gift’ in the way Paul Brand does but perhaps in a different way it can be seen as an opportunity.

Pain is a frequent visitor to my life mostly in the form of severe migraines on perhaps half the days of every month. They started when I was a child so the natural ways of relating to them as unwanted were well established long before I’d learned to meditate and had been going for 30 years before I was taught to watch my mind.

These days ‘pain’ is an integral part of awareness practice. The form of Right View I employ runs along the lines of “when there is physical pain how much is the mind joining in?” Sometimes there is clearly mental aversion, I don’t want this experience. It used to feel quite counter-intuitive to expect otherwise. But because I’ve practised with it a lot, and strengthened Right (dharma) View it has become more natural to notice the reactions to the pain rather than identify with it. I’ve learned to spot the aversion more quickly and it’s become more subtle so then other views and feelings are revealed.

There is ‘grim death’ mind, just hanging on but definitely not enjoying the moment. There is stoicism and self-pity ‘why me’ mind. There is disappointment waking with head pain on a day when I’m going to be out with friends doing fun things! Or slight dread of a working day accompanied by savage pounding head, sore neck and strong sensitivity to light. And sometimes there is just the sense that the mind is a bit clouded as if there’s something not quite right. The mind is affected by the pain in all these ways and many more.

And none of these things is a problem. They are just to be noticed in awareness, and awareness can be relied on for its consistent ability to make things feel at least a bit better. If you take away the mental buy-in to physical pain the landscape changes. That’s not to say pain killers, hot wheat bags and naps aren’t necessary but without resisting it ‘pain’ or ‘unpleasant’ becomes just another experience. It’s just how it is.

Of course, the potential in working with pain is not just to reduce it or to have awareness of it but to understand its nature. And following the meditation I described at the beginning of this piece, there was a moment of such understanding. It was clear to me that ‘pain’ and ‘unpleasant’ are (as Paul Brand and dharma students know intellectually) constructs fabricated in the mind. Sitting here now with another migraine the memory rather than the experience is clear but the increased interest in watching the mind remains.

Coming to the Breath

My relationship to the breath has been changing recently. I have a long- standing difficulty with practising the Mindfulness of Breathing. I would become tense and the mind would feel constricted as I focused on the breath and counted. For many years I worked with the quality of effort, trying not to force the attention. I also worked with trying not to control the breath which I found very difficult. There was regularly frustration upon noticing the attempts at control and I didn’t know what to do with that. There was also frustration and self-doubt that the mind so easily slid away from the breath and into thoughts and stories. So I left the breath alone and with it, ‘concentration’ practice.

I took up meditation practice where it didn’t matter what the object of attention was and where I didn’t need to stay with the same object over the course of a single practice. This was very helpful. I could have a much broader and more expansive experience of the breath within the whole body. So the breath would come and go amidst other body sensations, sounds and various mental states and activities of the mind. A major object was observing how the mind related to different experiences and in particular, spotting when there was craving in the mind; when ‘wanting’ was expressed through various expectations about what ‘should’ be happening in meditation, and by ‘trying’ – usually too hard!

Every now and again I would re-attempt to let the mind rest more with the breath. This was OK for a while but usually ended with some degree of tension and the feeling/thought “this is wrong”. Or “I’m doing it wrong.” I read a couple of meditation teachers whose opinions I really respected who seemed to say that, for some people, the breath was not a helpful object. There was too much habitual striving in the mind, or an unhelpful degree of narrowing down in the attempt to ‘focus’, usually done quite unconsciously. It turns out that knowing when you’re doing this kind of thing is quite difficult to spot and changing it, when it is a life long way of relating to self and world, almost impossible.

Over the past few years, though, it’s become more pleasurable and relaxing to come to the breath albeit for relatively short periods of time. Then something happened on a recent retreat that took things a bit further, though not in a way I might have anticipated.

In one particular sit I was with the breath in a very open way. Other objects, particularly body sensations were around but mainly I was watching the mind knowing the breath. And because I was watching the mind I started to see subtle conceptual formulations about the breath. I could also see how these constructs were creating a slight tension or friction like 2 things rubbing up against each other.

These mental constructs weren’t thoughts as such but a putting together of momentary fragments of thought/image/mental knowing. They were specifically concepts of ‘in & out’ breath and ‘up & down’ breath. The concepts were tied to sensations but the ideas didn’t fit the experience. Actually, the sensations connected with ‘breath’ don’t go up and down but appear in different parts of the chest, stomach, front and back ribs etc. In and out were similarly inaccurate in direct experience. The concepts or ideas were seen apart and unconnected from the sensations.

Once the concepts were seen for what they were the tension disappeared and the mind became very relaxed in knowing sensations and the concepts. It seemed like the concepts were unrecognised vestiges of concentration practice that were finally recognised by the clear seeing mind that had more of a perspective of clear seeing and insight.

It really doesn’t work trying to do 2 types of meditation at the same time!

House Hunting Mind

I’ve become addicted to Rightmove. It has all the same qualities of addiction to FaceBook. Or checking my emails more frequently that I need to. Or checking my blog stats. So far I am not closing down this behaviour but just observing. Sometimes the observing of it naturally checks the impulse. Sampajana kicks in asking “is this necessary?” And I know it’s not as I only checked about 10 minutes ago! It’s quickly become a habit.

It has a purpose – we want to buy a house so I’m doing research. And it does lead to necessary action as we go and look at some of these houses and we’re working out what sort of house we want to buy. So there is an objective ‘need’ to check out Rightmove. And even an objective need to look on a daily basis as properties can come on the market and sell within a couple of days.

When I’m out I’m starting to notice thoughts and images in my mind that are a fleeting thought/image/feeling complex of ‘whenIgethome-checkRightmove-newhousetolookat-pleasure-excitement’. Craving is keeping its new project alive. Fed by all the flickerings of interested searching each time I see I ‘For Sale’ sign or pass an Estate Agents or pass through a particularly beautiful part of town bringing on what my partner and I call ‘house lust’.

It’s the mind that goes with it that I’m more interested in. I said I’ve become ‘addicted’ to the house hunt. What does that mean in experience? It’s a sort of ‘cravy’ restless searching that’s tinged with dullness. There is a compulsiveness to it. I’m making it sound a bit gross and obvious but it is quite subtle. There is mild dissatisfaction which clouds and agitates the mind. These days I know what the mind can be, and not just on retreat or after meditation and dipping into some dharma reading. Simply being aware has an effect on the mind.

I don’t think this craving, dissatisfied feeling is inevitably the quality of ‘property search mind’. It’s more that I stop watching the mind and focus more on the ‘objects’ of mind, in this case; the web searches, the houses, the locations. I focus on all the complexity of the ‘hunt’ that the mind finds stimulating and initially enjoyable. I’m drawn into believing the reality of these external features rather than knowing them as the play of appearances, predominantly sense objects of sight and ideas.

I also miss or don’t have the awareness to notice how I’m relating to these objects (frequent web checking, desirable features of houses, prices, meetings with vendors). Staying closer to the mind rather than drawn into objects I notice the arising of mind moments of greed or aversion and see how they ‘colour’ the mind and how they condition the arising of more of those type of mind moments. Before I know it the mood is a bit grubby or I find myself reacting impatiently or sharply to my partner.

The alternative is awareness gets a bit of momentum through noticing what’s happening without being pulled into it and conditions more moments of awareness and its ‘friends’. Mental factors like faith, energy, equanimity and clear seeing arise and have a very different feel to the previously agitated and restless mind. They condition further open and clear ‘knowing,’ and often, joy.

‘House hunting mind’ is, of course, just one manifestation of craving and aversion at work. Craving and aversion will work with any object, using it to increase their own strength. They are not fussy and will work with the most unlikely material to ‘grow’ an infatuation with something or a dislike. Fortunately, the same principle of conditionality is universal and operates for any positive mental factors too. There are different starting points for a positive and progressive spiral; faith and ethics are both traditional formulae. Perhaps, for me, the simplest and most profound is Awareness.