Sunday, 23 November 2014

Being Alive to The Things we Find Hard to Bear

These are some incomplete notes taken from memory based on a brilliant dhamma teaching on suffering by Yanai Postelnik.

First: Check in with yourself. It is very important to be with ourselves. Put aside mobile phones, emails, thoughts of things which must be done, or things which might have been or have been. Check in with yourself. We imagine that if we do this the world will collapse without us, but let the world look after itself for this time of retreat. It will have to do so after we're gone, so let's give it some practice. Instead of turning away from ourself as we do habitually in looking out into the world and getting lost in achievement and appetite and distraction, especially to avoid feelings of boredom or loneliness or stuckness or existential angst or pain, all the things we use to paper over just being with ourselves and really feeling these things, instead let us turn inwards. Let us give ourselves space to just be. Let us meditate.

Secondly: Be alive to the things we find hard to bear. Buddha's whole teaching is said to have been described by himself as concerning just one thing: suffering and freedom from suffering. But isn't this two things? Buddha is appropriating the idea in Indian philosophy of the one thing through which everything else might be known, and then perhaps subverting it. Buddha's first noble truth is the realisation of suffering. This is sometimes misunderstood that life is suffering. Rather it means the existence of suffering and being alive to this, realising the existence of things which are hard to bear. They may not be impossible to bear. It's not true we can't bear them. We often do. But these are things which cause difficulty. Buddha's own story is how as a young prince he came to realise the existence of ageing, sickness and death, and fourthly the possibility of liberation, this witnessing of suffering which shook him profoundly ironically because he had been protected from it until then and therefore was so alive to it. His first noble truth reflects this awakening to suffering of his youth, and indeed his means of attaining enlightenment also reflected another childhood experience, an experience of unity which came through curiosity. Let us turn inwards then with the eyes and ears of our love.

Thirdly: Suffering is manifold. The four-fold: birth, age, sickness and death correspond to stages in life. Sickness doesn't mean a cold or something which we might get when young but really that which we cannot recover from. It might even be translated as "decay". We often think of "tooth decay", but the whole body decays. As well as physical things which are hard to bear, there is also mental suffering, such as the suffering of anger, greed, loneliness, boredom, being separated from what we love or being close to what we hate or fear.

Fourthly: Suffering is not mine alone. The great Thai monk Buddhadasa used to begin his speeches, "Dear brothers and sisters in birth, ageing, sickness and death…" This points to a profound but simple practice. Whenever we see someone, to think: this is someone who suffers, who finds things hard to bear. Then, instead of our habitual liking or disliking the people in the world around us, we feel a common bond. My suffering is not mine alone. Others suffer also, perhaps in different ways. Another powerful practice is listening to the suffering of others with compassion, without feeling the need to blame and without even trying to fix it. Just being present to each other's and our own suffering can have a profound effect. It's fine to fix things, but from a place then of silent wisdom. We meditate in silence to connect with ourself. Connecting with ourself, we connect better with people around us. Let us meditate not only for ourselves.
Fifthly: Suffering is conditioned by our reaction to it. Sometimes suffering can come from the way we react to suffering. Instead of looking how to avoid it, or our tendency to blame it on someone else, or on ourselves, could we instead pause and learn from the experience? When the weather presenter describes the forecast as "miserable", they are referring to a human emotion, but the rain need not be seen this way. Often the worst it can do is to make you wet.
Sixthly: Transform suffering into blessings. Buddha's teaching doesn't end with the existence of suffering. Suffering is an experience which we all have to go through, and we cannot wholly avoid. When we experience it, it's often important not to avoid it because it's a guide which must be listened to, experienced and learned from. How can we learn from it? This requires a certain vulnerability. Staying with compassion, transform suffering into blessings. This is not something that can be accomplished with thought. It is a kind of wisdom that arises from silence, finding space and togetherness, being alive and present to the situations and things that trouble us, and immersed in that experience, coming through them.

The Well of Grief (David Whyte)
Those who will not slip beneath 
    the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water 
    to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink, 
    the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering 
    the small round coins 
        thrown by those who wished for something else.
—David Whyte from Where Many Rivers Meet 
    ©2007 Many Rivers Press

Why then do we not despair? (Anna Akhmatova)
Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold 
Death's great black wing scrapes the air, 
misery gnaws to the bone. 
Why then do we not despair?
By day, from the surrounding woods, 
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses—
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breasts for centuries.

—Anna Akhmatova (Translated by Stanley Kunitz.)
The Unbroken (Rashani)

Khalil Gibran, "On Pain"

Your pain is the breaking of the shell
that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break,
that its heart may stand in the sun,
so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder
at the daily miracles of your life,
your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted
the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity
through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician
within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink
his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard,
is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings,
though it burn your lips,
has been fashioned of the clay
which the Potter has moistened
with His own sacred tears.

The Serenity Prayer (Reinhold Niebuhr)

God grant me the serenity 

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; 

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

as it is, not as I would have it; 

Trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him

Forever in the next.


Everything is Waiting for You (David Whyte)

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone.
As if life were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream-ladder
to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
— David Whyte from Everything is Waiting for You
    ©2003 Many Rivers Press

After Great Pain (Emily Dickinson)

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Lovers' Truth

The desert is a pathless land
For every path is steeped in sand.
Since we embrace the desert wide
We must not from our sadness hide.
For sadness is a ray of light,
A star that guides us through the night.
Lest I forget, lead me brave friend
But lead your own path till the end.

—okei (2013)

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Keeler's Three Worlds & the Sacred Tree of Life

The ideas here are inspired by a talk I went to by Ahmed Paul Keeler, but my questions and conclusions might be quite different.

Medieval Christianity revered its saints and its sacred artefacts, built society around religious authority and buildings, and went on crusades to spread its faith and teach obedience. The Enlightenment brought the dawn of reason and doubt which revered heroes and philosophers, wiping away the sacred and in its place revived the dead civilisations of Greece and Rome, building society around concepts and ideals and the ghosts of history, colonising the world in the name of civilising it, teaching progress and achievement. Modernity reveres celebrity and money, builds society around democracy and corporations and through debt and war makes the world depend on the market, teaching free-trade, growth and the translation of everything human into a market value. On the bright side, these three represent morality, reason and efficiency through which the world is fed — spiritually, mentally and bodily. But what each lacks is an open-heartedness and in certain moments of history, each projected outwards their dark side, rejecting some aspect of humanity (the magical, the black; the primitive, the tribal; the poor, the natural) with devastating consequences (burning witches, slavery, colonisation, genocide, exploitation, environmental destruction).

Traditionalism reveres order and a return to sacred life and community. It values the living memory of language, calligraphy, music, folklore, culture, celebration and prayer. However, just because something has always been done a certain way is surely no reason to perpetuate it and stifle change? By contrast, post-modernism reveres freedom and self-expression and individuality. However, might this not involve the opposite risk of an unconditional acceptance of a chaotic present? Instead of seeing traditionalism and post-modernism as opposite choices, is it not possible for us to imagine a beautiful synthesis? Order within chaos, freedom within community, the light of the sacred within self expression?
Maxfield Parrish
Garden of Allah (1918)
The tree of life and the tree of tradition are the same tree. It has roots that go deep and wide, as well as leaves that reach for the light and whose breath is the scent of the wind. The roots nourish the leaves, the leaves nourish the roots. In everything a balance: it need not mean a choice nor a restriction. 
Gustav Klimt
The Tree of Life (1905) [detail]
Perhaps all this is just ideas and concepts, but if we seriously care about the world, then should we not think about it? Isn't thinking a proof of love? Despite the limitations of our thinking, it might lead us one day to a deeper understanding.