Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Tracing It Back to the Radiance

There was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently. 
(Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing)

Philosophy is love of knowledge, knowledge that would teach us how to live. But what use is knowledge if we do not put it into practice? Hypocrisy is the philosopher’s sin – “do as I say, not as I do”. As usual, Shakespeare got it right.

So let us put aside the philosophical way and turn to the meditative way. Ajahn Chah was once asked, "Why do you meditate? How do you meditate? What is the result of your meditation?" He asked for clarification of each question, and then replied, "Why do you eat? How do you eat? What is the result of your eating?" "I don’t mean to insult you", he added, seeing the reaction he had caused. "It is really as simple as that." There is nothing special about meditation.

In the world, we are swept up by worldly things. We hide away from the cold and the dark. We snuggle up to light and warmth. We get lost in our thoughts without knowing where we’ve been. We get complacent. By contrast, the mindful ones, it is said, “do not die”. What does this mean?

He who bends to himself a joy
Does the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity's sunrise.
(William Blake)

One technique which you can put into practice is of categorizing your thoughts as skilful and unskilful, "kusala" and "akusala". The former we encourage, the latter we observe their cessation. In this way, we weed out unskilful thoughts. “Our thoughts make the world.” Unskilful thoughts are not bad as such, just not where we want to go, like making a choice which way to go at a roundabout. Like when teaching a child how to behave, the child is not the enemy, but it needs direction. Mindfulness is the brilliance of a conductor finding harmony among the diversity of instruments.

To help us in this technique, if you catch yourself daydreaming, making a string of associations unrelated to where you want to go, try tracing them back. Then, next time, you’ll be more aware when you’re riffing on a thought. I call this "conceptual proliferation". It’s not bad as such. It can be a great source of creativity. But it can also be a source of distraction, which comes from Latin and literally means “being pulled apart”. With greater awareness, we can avoid distraction, and trace our thoughts back to the radiance of their source.

An example of a troubling thought pattern, particularly difficult to resolve, is anger at the suffering of others that we can do nothing about. That every second, hundreds of acres of forest are being cut down, hundreds of people are dying of starvation and poverty and disease, untold misery and all preventable. It is difficult because in some ways it is good to be upset about it – it shows we care! But if we didn’t think about it, we feel that it would mean that we didn’t care. It boggles the mind that there could be any alternative. Is it possible to care, and have faith in that, yet not get lost ourselves in the suffering of others which only increases suffering? We might consider it a form of compassion to do so, but true compassion, in the Buddhist sense, is empathy with a quality of brightness to it. If we see the other as defined by their suffering, we do not really see them for themselves. I once met an army officer in Thailand who helped me to resolve this dilemma. He had great power to help others, and used it. In a matter-of-fact way, he said, “I do what I can do. If I could do more I would, but I can’t.” He was not guilty or bothered by it. It boggled my mind at first. But with this matter-of-fact attitude, we are much better positioned to help the people we really can. He had recognized the limits of his capacity, and he did his best.

Source: Anonymous. This is merely written up by me, and any errors are mine.

This was originally posted to Buddhist Travellers in 2010.

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