The 8 Fold Path – Right Action

Our 4th week in the exploration of the 8 Fold Path.

Read the transcript below or listen to the audio of our gathering here.

Thoughts become words and words become action. Well, usually. But we all know it’s not quite that simple. Actually, there are times when we do things almost unconsciously and then regret it later. We look back and it is almost as if we were on autopilot.

In simple terms, the Buddha gave us three particular areas to look at here.

  1. Abstain from taking life
  2. Abstain from taking what isn’t given.
  3. Abstain from sexual misconduct.

Actually, I think we can look at this in a different way. Abstain from causing harm. I’ve expressed this before. If we start with this simple approach to life, it is going to make a positive change and it is going to be wholesome. So we must examine our actions and ask if they are likely to cause harm.

Of course, here we can return again to what drives our actions and we find that again they can be driven by greed/grasping, aversion/hatred or delusion.

Delusion is rather difficult to see through for some people. There are spiritual approaches in our wold which actually encourage acts that cause harm, on many levels. If we are immersed in a spirituality like this, it is very difficult to see through the delusion and understand where the harm is being caused.

Of course there are many complications here. Some of which I really don’t have all the answers to. For example, where we end a life of someone who is suffering unbearably from an incurable illness. There is nothing in the Pali cannon that guides us here and personally, I hope I never have to take that decision. I’m not sure if I could.

Theft if fairly obvious but again, we can have complications here. The advice here is don’t take what isn’t given, but there are of course degrees here too. We all remember the PPI situation with the banks. Many agencies jumped on the band wagon and encouraged us to claim. The banks were inundated and many people made money when they weren’t entitled. For a while there was a real hatred of the banks. It caused great damage. I know many hard working, decent people who work in banks. Although the banks certainly failed to behave ethically here, the claims against them were in excess of the mistakes that were actually made here. As individuals, no matter what we might be capable of “getting away with” we shouldn’t take what isn’t given. Or in this case, we shouldn’t take what isn’t actually owed to us, even though we could potentially get away with it.

Why not? Where’s the repercussion? Again it comes back to what is wholesome and what isn’t. Actually, we have to examine how we feel as an individual. If we know that our mortgage cover wasn’t miss-sold to us and we go putting the claim in, there will be a knowledge and a tightening. This is doing us damage and it is certainly hurting others. We cannot dismiss this by saying ” the banks are big enough, they won’t notice the impact of my little claim” If enough of us think in this way we cause real damage.

Abstaining from sexual misconduct. Here we are of course talking about what causes harm and what doesn’t and most of us have a pretty clear moral compass with this one. Of course here desire is a key ingredient to this one. The damage to oneself too is clear. But I think paying heed to the mental side of this is even more damaging. Sex can become an addiction and this addiction is very very dangerous as it doesn’t just damage us, but it damages others.

So this section of the path can be seen as the simplest to understand because of its emphasis on not causing harm. The opposite of which is of cause to offer out love, compassion and generosity.

So today, to explore this in meditation, we will meditate on compassion with the Metta bhavanna.

8 Fold Path – Right Speech

Read the notes below or listen to the full session here –

 

Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood. 

This group is often called the group of moral discipline. Today we will tackle right speech but first let’s explore the group together. Notice that they are being placed after right view and right intent. We are first setting the scene of the direction and then, with the moral group, we should see this as guidance to help us take our journey. With any journey that is going to potentially long and arduous we not only have to think of the direction we are heading and how we are going to get there, but also, what we should take with us and what we should leave behind. 

This is the way we should approach the morality group. What we take with us and what we leave behind. We can look again at what is wholesome for us and what isn’t. And of course, we approach this almost entirely from the mental aspect of the experience. 

Here in the west, morality and ethics are often seen as ways of behaving to adhere to rules, a higher power or perhaps a deity of some sort. But here this isn’t the focus. The focus is on what is wholesome for us and therefore takes us forward in our spiritual growth. It is a very important part and practise of the 8 fold path. Buddha said – first establish yourself in the starting point of wholesome states, that is in purified moral discipline and in right view. Then, when your moral discipline is purified and your view straight, you should practise the foundations of mindfulness.

Note also the word discipline here. Of course discipline happens in the mind. It implies concentration. We can see here how the different components of the path touch each other. Later we will of course be discussing right concentration. 

In a nutshell, the teachings can be summed as abstaining from the unskillful, cultivating the skilful and purifying the mind. 

So right speech, the first of these areas to examine. A way to understand the essence of right speech is to deliberately hold silence for 24 hours. Very difficult to do in this modern world, but not impossible. When we hold silence we find ourselves from time to time, having to bite back the words. When we do this, we actually notice the thought processes that are going on immediately prior to letting the words out. It is this that reveals to us the nature of the motivation, the intent, behind the words. What we find is elements of skilful and unskillful thinking at many levels. 

True or false speech. The connotations here are obvious but the motivations will always be more complex. Investigation what is driving our speech, in general, is key here. Then we can start to delve into the nature of the message and whether it is truthful. Of course this practise can be challenging. Our modern world sometimes places pressures on us to be less than truthful. I remember, in my previous career where my seniors were encouraging me to lie to the customers. When I challenged this their response was, “this isn’t lying, it is just spinning things a little”. It is also possible of course, to lie by not saying anything. By not speaking, we avoid telling the truth, when perhaps we should be. All of these challenges are real and again I would encourage an approach of examining the thinking behind the potential speech and a questioning of whether or not it is wholesome to yourself and or others. Keep things as simple as you can. Don’t over-complicate. Life is complicated enough. There is of course a deep implication for truth. We as human being affect the world. We touch it and one way we do this is through speech. If our speech is unwholesome in some way shape or form, we are touching the world with that act. That unwholesome touch will permeate like oil poured in to a river. Potentially polluting and causing real harm. 

Harsh speech. This is speech which is uttered in anger and the unskillful side can clearly be seen. Again though, we must investigate the deliberate harsh speech and the harsh speech born out of a lack of care. In other words the words we utter that may case harm because we have spoken them without considering their consequences. We can’t see all the consequences of our thoughts, but we should at least try. 

Idle chatter. Interesting one this one. Here we often read that speech should only be used for matters which carry purpose or depth. Personally, I find this one hard to follow. Most marriages would soon grow stale if the couple could only discuss things which were of a serious, deep nature. However, there is one key area that I believe we can all look at here. Gossip. This definitely sits in here. We say things about someone who isn’t present to another person. Maybe because we believe it will put us in a position of power or maybe it is just to fill the silence. I love the story of Socrates here. 

“Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”

“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Triple Filter Test.”

“Triple filter?”

“That’s right,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about my student let’s take a moment to filter what you’re going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”

“No,” the man said, “actually I just heard about it and…”

“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”

“No, on the contrary…”

“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him, even though you’re not certain it’s true?” The man shrugged, a little embarrassed. Socrates continued. “You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter – the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”

“No, not really”

“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?”

The 8 Fold Path – Right Intent

Our meditation subject on Monday was the second component of the Buddha’s 8 Fold Path – Right Intent. Listen to the audio below or read the transcript.

Enjoy your practice.

We could see right view and right intention as the same thing. Both seem to imply thought processes going on and a sense of mental activity to take us forward. The certainly intertwine, but the aren’t the same thing. 

If we see right view as the target, we could look on right intention as the mental activity required to get there. 

If we use the analogy of the journey again, then right view is the final destination and right intention are each of our decisions along our journey to get us there. All the turns to the left or the right, all the decisions about shortcuts across parkland or whether we stay on the road. 

So right intent is very important. If right view is the culmination of our practice, the right intent builds it from the ground up. Step by step or, of course, thought by thought. Because here we aren’t just talking about the major decisions in our life. Actually, what in many ways is more important, we consider each and every thought. 

As we discovered last week, the Buddha recommended to us whether we considered things wholesome or not. So we can look at the individual thoughts and decide if they are wholesome. This is where our practice really comes in to our life. The 8 fold path isn’t just something we do at certain times of our week. We are practicing every minute of the day. Right intent is focusing on each and every thought and driving it from a place of compassion. This carries us forward to right view. As we get more adept at Focusing in this way, so our right view, inevitably, changes, matures. 

So, what about the Buddha’s advice for establishing right intent? Remember last week we talked about the four noble truths? We spoke about the underlying causes for suffering which were driven by the three roots of unwholesome acts. I.e desire/grasping/craving, aversion/ill will/hate and delusion. 

We can look look at each of these and think about what cultivates the opposite of these. 

For grasping and desire, the Buddha recommended we consider renunciation. However, his approach, the middle way, is very soft. He didn’t believe that we all have to give up the household life and become a monk. Desire and craving are attitudes of mind. So is renunciation. So, through our meditation and mindfulness we learn to mentally notice and ‘turn our back’ on craving. He said that we can be a prince in a palace and still gain enlightenment if we do not allow craving and desire into our heart. 

Conversely, If we become a Monk, but still crave the rich life, we will still suffer. So renunciation is a mental approach of noticing and disregarding the desire for sense objects. To eat when we need, but not to resort to gluttony for example. 

Aversion. Here we need to look to compassion and love and for this, we developed Metta. Unconditional love with equanimity for all aspects of our life. Again, all mental reactions. Noticing when we are mentally pushing things away, asking why and approaching these things with a degree of acceptance. The other really powerful activity here is generosity, which neutralises Ill will. The practice of generosity is extremely wholesome for us as individuals. A real tonic. 

Delusion runs deep in all of us. It is seeing the world behind the veil of our own minds. I.e. Seeing it behind all of our attitudes, habitual thought patterns, prejudices, religious beliefs etc. The opposite of this is pure view. Seeing the world and the people within it as it is and they are. This takes time and it is on course the practice of mind watching or mindfulness that takes us there. 

For me, right intent really demonstrates the difference between secular mindfulness and Buddhism as a spiritual discipline. Here, with the 8 fold path, we are looking to take ourselves forward to a place where we fully alleviate suffering both for ourselves and for those around us. This is the ultimate spiritual goal of Buddhist practice. 

The Noble 8 Fold Path – Right View

The first in the series. Read the words below or listen to our session here.

I think it helps to remember some of the context here. A little of the history that is presented to us in The Pali Cannon. (The Buddhist Bible)

He Buddha gave his first sermon to the Ascetics who have followed him through the forests for 7 years. They had suffered greatly in their pursuit of understanding. The Buddha’s enlightenment, revealed to him an understanding about suffering. His realisation of the 4 noble truths. That, actually, life contains suffering for all of us. There is a way out of this suffering and it is the understanding of why we suffer that leads us out. Through acceptance and adjusting our response to life we can let go.

This is a difficult path to follow and although the ascetics understood it and actually became immediately enlightened when they saw the wisdom of it, for the rest of us, the path to this point is very difficult. To help us, the Buddha presented the eight fold path.

The components of the eight fold path are not to be seen as individual steps. But they intertwine and support each other and we come back to each component time and again on our journey.

We can see enlightenment as ultimate wisdom/understanding and of course, wisdom unfolds piece by piece.

Over the coming 8 weeks we are going to look at each of these components and how they relate to us in this modern world of ours.

We can see the 8 components split into 3 parts.

  • The moral discipline group. – Right Speech, Right Action and right livelihood
  • The Concentration group – right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration
  • The Wisdom Group – Right View and Right intention

We are going to start with right view. Why? Well to put it simply, when you set out on a journey you do need an idea of your direction. The 8 fold path actually starts and ends with right view. But how can that be? How can we have the right view at the start when we haven’t completed the path? We haven’t achieved enlightenment? Well, non of the factors in the path are fixed and static. What would be the point of the path if they were? There would be no learning to be done. So the view we hold at the start will definitely gradually change and be refined into the final right view. But if there is a right view, why didn’t the Buddha just tell us what it is and we can be immediately enlightened? The truth is, the view has to be ‘felt’. It is not an academic thing. It also may well present itself slightly different to each of us, when we discover it. As our practise progresses, our right view will also deepen. At the beginning, it may well be quite mundane. Our view will centre on perhaps morals and ethics and understanding the Dhamma and its direction that it provides. Certainly the four noble truths give us some place to start but there will be much more in our initial right view than this.

As we progress through right view, we may have to start to let go of some of the things that we have built our spiritual practise around. Slowly, the importance around things that we have held on to will start to lessen. So our dependence on ritual and perhaps beliefs in supernatural things or superstitions we have may start to evaporate. I remember some years ago a young lady joined our Buddhist group back in Hertfordshire. When she first arrived she very honestly said that she came to Buddhism because of her love for the potential psychic abilities it may give her. She was looking for magic. However, as her practise deepened she let go of this and gradually she moved away from it and loved pure mindfulness meditation. She discovered the magic simply in the breath.

To look at right view in Buddhist practise, we often use the word ‘wholesome’. So we can look at our thoughts and actions and ask if they are wholesome practises. What do we mean but wholesome and unwholesome?

In truth there are many thousands of examples here but the Buddha gave us a list of unwholesome things as a starting point.

  1. Destroying life
  2. Taking what is not given
  3. Wrong conduct in regard to sense pleasures
  4. False Speech
  5. Slanderous Speech
  6. Harsh Speech
  7. Idle Chatter
  8. Covetousness (Leading to jealousy)
  9. Ill will
  • Wrong View

As we step through these we can say that they become more related to mind and more subtle. Possible more easy to fall into? One would hope that we will all understand the unwholesome ness of destroying life.

The root of all these unwholesome actions are Greed, Aversion and delusion. These we all suffer with.

But what about wrong view? What is meant here? Didn’t we start with right view?

As we progress our understanding of both right view and wrong view will become more subtle. Life gets complex. In order to avoid hurting one person, we sometimes end up hurting others. Learning to pick our way through this gets very difficult.

But when we follow this path we find that we start to ‘feel’ something. To feel a difference in our life and our understanding of it. This is called the ‘ripenings’. All of these unwholesome actions (and their opposites the wholesome ones) are all driven by the mind and they all leave an imprint on the mind. This is therefore very simple. When we choose to follow a right view, we are stepping away from unwholesome actions which damage the mind and cause us suffering and towards wholesome actions which ripen in the mind and give us happiness.

In this modern world, we see many examples every day of subtle and less than subtle moral and ethical poor behavior. It is very easy to step up on to our soap box and look with criticism at this. How many times do we see examples of this on social media. Even in Buddhist forums I see examples of people trying to be the ‘best Buddhist’. Grandstanding their position over others. In many ways this is touching lots of the elements of the above list. Certainly, it is harsh speech. By making themselves look good, they stamp on someone else opinions. But this type of behavior does not take us forward along the eight-fold path. This is causing us damage. Our journey along the eight fold path can only be made by us. Stepping on others won’t help us.

So today, we are going to first of all get a little impression of what our personal right view is, before we step into our meditation, the mindfulness of breathing.

 

 

Stillness – The Chance to Observe.

Monday’s Meditation.

Read the write-up below or hear the recording here.

When the mind is disturbed, like choppy waters, we don’t have the opportunity to observe what’s going on.

The challenges that this practise gives us will be apparent to some of you now, that have been coming for a while. But those new to meditation, who haven’t stepped outside the process of the mind and seen what is going on, you won’t necessarily appreciate the importance of stillness.

This modern world of ours seems to be encouraging us to take on more activity and do more “stuff” all the time. It is as if we are led to believe that still time is dead time. So, I encourage you to explore stillness. To experience its benefits and also experience how much stillness you experience during your day.

What pulls you away from stillness in to action. Clearly we need to do our jobs, look after our people and undertake daily chores. But what do we mean by stillness here? What is moving and what is still?

In Tai Chi, we study the dichotomy of Stillness in Action and Action in stillness. We discover through the practise how each tiny move is created out of 7 or 8 different principles. All of which are driven by the mind. These are all going on, continuously, through the flow of the form. If we didn’t have a sense of stillness about us, we wouldn’t be able to feel and understand the beauty of how these principles are interacting and contributing to our movement. Even a simple arm movement, we discover, is not driven by the arm. We appreciate and feel how the mind moves first. Then the body as an integrated whole starts to move in response to the mind and finally the arm moves.

But surely we are talking about stillness here? Why do we seem to be focusing on movement?

So, without movement, stillness would never exist. The dichotomy is needed to appreciate it. Without movement, there is no life and without life there is nothing to be still. We are now touching the boundaries of what we are talking about here and where this is heading.

Have you ever been deep in a forest. Surrounded by that beautiful hushes silence and suddenly a bird sings. Somehow, the birdsong deepens the silence, increasing its wonderful quality. This is what we are talking about here. Stillness, requires movement within it. But it is the right kind of movement. So when we watch an experienced Tai Chi practitioner move, we can sense the stillness despite the fact that they are moving. Where does this come from? From Mind.

This is what we need to find in our own minds and in our meditation practice. What does all this mean? It means our minds don’t have to be silent of thoughts. But they are just not part of our attention. They are like the background hush of the wind or the singing of the bird, adding to the silence.

We drive the stillness by using our breath.

Entering in to suffering

Listen to the Audio or read the transcript below.

Consider a diamond. What words come to mind when we think of a diamond? Expensive, hard, sparkling, engagement, cutting, beauty etc. Some of the words are related to how the diamond appears but many of them are associated with what we infer and associate with the diamond. So this is showing how our mind embellishes what we initially see. What we actually see is something sparkly, transparent, colours refracted, tiny reflections etc. So there is nothing visibly to do with value or engagement. This is all inferred. We can’t even ‘see’ hardness. That is only revealed if we touch the diamond. But when we see the diamond, we feel the hardness because of the embellishment from our minds. It is this process that we need to go into with mindfulness. We can understand this on an academic level but we’ve got to actually feel the process going on. The perception, we need to separate out and then feel the mind embellishing the object. 

If we look purely at the visual, then a dew drop has very similar characteristics to the diamond. It is just as pretty and has similar light refracting and reflecting properties. If the diamond was fashioned in to a bead, the two would be identical. But if we understood and labelled the dew drop as a diamond, the minds embellishment would attach value and the nature of hardness to it. 

With this practice it helps us to see how we mentally react and embellish in all aspects of our life. Including the areas that cause us suffering. Our suffering is not as a result of the things that happen to us, it is the result of our reaction to the things that happen to us. This is embellishment from the mind that is causing this. 

So consider the simplicity of a diamond and all the embellishment we wrap around it. Then move on to a rather more complex object. A person. Just think of all of the embellishment we wrap around a person. Even when we meet someone for the first time, our minds start to categorise and make assumptions about that person based on people we have seen before. We start to decide if they are professional, trustworthy, lazy or hardworking, conceited etc and they haven’t even told us their name yet. Of course they are working the same way towards us. When people reveal their prejudices about us, to us, we feel anger. But we do just the same to everyone we meet! 

So the practice of mindfulness here is exceptionally important. Otherwise, we never allow ourselves to meet the true person. 

The minds behaviour if often described as a mirror. It shows us what the minds idea of the world is. Not the actual world. Which is tricky, because the only reason we can perceive the world is because of mind!

But why DOES this cause us suffering? The suffering we are talking about here is Dukkha. Unfortunately some people do have to cope with chronic pain in their lives. But this is not what we are talking about here. Dukkha is roughly translated as the general unsatisfactory-ness of everyday life. So the suffering caused by sitting in traffic when we are heading home from a busy day. The worry caused by a comment made by a friend or acquaintance when we don’t know the context or reason. The anxiety caused by the lack of Wifi in our hotel (ridiculous I know, but for some people this is a very serious issue)

The process sitting behind all of this is the exact same process as the diamond. The minds interpretation and embellishment. 

So by practicing mindfulness we start to feel this process happening in our minds. We can then bring to bear all of our meditation practice. We spot the embellishment and we spot the emotions that arise as a result. We spot the resultant tension and holding behaviour in our belies as that emotion manifests. We then work on all this to bring an attitude of softening and compassion to our bodies. More importantly we start to catch our minds as they start to embellish and literally stop the process happening in its tracks. So we see what is presented to us, rather than our own mirror. 

Of course, our meditation is the practice of developing this mental habit of mind-watching so that we do actually do the mindfulness! 

Today’s meditation, we will use the mindfulness of breathing to mind watch and notice our reactions to meditation. We are cutting down a lot of our sensory input in meditation so we are very much simplifying the situation. It is therefore much easier to stay mindful and watch our mental reactions during the meditation. To see how we push things away during the meditation and how this causes us to feel frustrations. To ask ourselves why we can’t make progress. Slowly, through practice we lessen our reactions and when we achieve that we discover the deep bliss of insight and understanding. 

Vipassana – The Body Scan

We are going to wind things back a little today as we have a new visitor with us. So I want to look at the first field of mindfulness, the body. It is good and healthy to take things back to the start sometimes and it reminds us of the things that actually are staring us in the face. Listen to the audio or read the text.

So let’s take a look at this body connection. Firstly, though, to get to grips with this we also need to see and feel the mind/body connection. It is clear that our bodies exist in and of themselves but without our minds we would not be aware of them. It is our mind that goes in to our bodies, with awareness, and explores it. But, where do we actually feel our emotions? Ne t time you experience an emotion, and you could probably find one right now, where do you feel it? You don’t feel it in your head do you? You feel it in your body. It’s in our gut or heart space. So the mind does the thinking about the situation but it is in the body that we experience it. So the body and mind are very much connected.

Now, this give us something that is exceptional. It gives us the ability to connect deeply with the world around us.

Our first level of connection is through the five senses. Let’s take, for example, smell. The chemical enters the nose, triggers the sense of smell. But of course what happens next is that it touches the mind, because it is the mind that interprets the smell. It places meaning on it and it also applies all our previous experience that we associate with that smell. We may then, of course, find emotions triggering through.

So now we have a real vehicle to explore through mindfulness. By paying attention to our bodies we can start to feel the emotions as they fire up and we can then look around ourselves and see what may have triggered them. Practising like this, we often find that our interpretation of the emotions we are carrying around in our selves are actually wrong. We feel an emotion and it starts to drive our behaviour and we blame the emotion on some aspect of our lives, but it could be something entirely different.

The classic example of this was the monk, walking through New York who suddenly felt anger. Confused by this but mindful, he stopped and looked around him. He spotted a man on the other side of the street. Someone he didn’t know but who had a similar body shape and walking gate to someone who had wronged him before. This is a very good example of this process going on. If we aren’t mindful, we become angry but don’t even realise it has arisen. Then, something insignificant but slightly annoying turns up and we attach our anger to this thing. Perhaps someone accidentally nudges us. Then, we have a reason and an excuse for the anger and it gets both barrels.

So, by starting to pay attention, more, to the body, we start to become aware of the subtlety of the emotions within us and how the world around us is triggering them.

We can also practise with the emotions and their effect on the body directly. This is all about learning to soften. Emotions tend to have a common effect on the body. Tension. Many emotions result in tension in the gut and the heart space. This tightening, if not let go of, will cause us physical difficulty eventually. Hypertension, high blood pressure, heart problems. All of these can arise if we don’t ever let go of this tension. Of course this isn’t easy. I’m suggesting here that we learn to pay attention all the time, even when we are in the thick of life. But that’s what we need to do.

The meditation is the key here. When we are meditation what we are actually doing is developing habit. A habit of watching the body and watching the mind.

Because it becomes habit, then the body watching and the mind watching will happen automatically (to an extent and with practise) so that we start to experience how the world around is triggering what happens inside the body. And this is the magic. As things happen in the world around us, reactions and emotions arise in the body. With practise, this starts to blur the dividing line between us and the world around us.

Developing the Yielding Mind

उपज मन (The Yielding Mind)

This blog posts connects up my two main practices of Tai Chi and meditation. Listen to the audio or read the text below.

Enjoy!

This meditation joins the dots between Tai Chi and meditation and, for me, is an important aspect of my practice.

Yielding is an interesting word and has many meanings to different people.

The Oxford English Dictionary says :

Give way to arguments, demands, or pressure.

With object –  Relinquish possession of.

With object – Concede (a point of dispute)

The implication of all of these is that somehow the action of yielding is weak in some way.

The Yielding we are looking at here runs deeper. We need to come at this by looking at human reactions and in particular reactions to conflict.

Human evolution has given us an interesting reaction to conflict. Fight, Flight or Freeze. All animals have this reaction and it is for very good reason. Survival. All three are applicable in different situations. Usually we consider these for physical conflict. However, the same response system kicks in with other types of conflict including verbal, emotional and even personal internal conflict. The really challenging thing for us is that these types of conflict don’t necessarily have to be real to cause the reaction. Our mind just has to ‘believe’ they are real and our mind fools us all the time! Much of what we think and conclude about the world isn’t real. As we have learnt in our other meditations over the past weeks, often the mind does not present a real picture of the world to us. The picture is based on the many things that are embedded in our mental habit.

So, we have a trigger response, and this results in one main result. Tension. For all three responses, tension is required. What physically happens when we are under the influence of this kind of response? Well a number of things. Short term, these are of course useful for survival. But if experienced long term, they start to have detrimental affects on us.

Blood flow to brain and muscles increase/Concentration heightens – Potentially causing tension headache, migraines, anxiety, moods

Heart rate increases – Potentially leading to chest pains, raised blood pressure

Breathing becomes more rapid – Potentially leading to clammy, sweaty feelings, breathing difficulties

Digestion pauses to allow for more energy – Potentially leading to heartburn, indigestion, ulcers

Muscle tension increases – Potentially leading to aches, pains, muscle spasms, internal muscular related difficulties.

Other than the physical functions carried on by our body, stress can damage our bodies in other ways. When we are under stress, we often tend to abuse our body. This can include poor lifestyle choices such as eating fatty and greasy foods, drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, or even abusing prescription or illegal drugs. All these can have a secondary affect on the body caused by stress.

Of course, we aren’t faced with physical conflict very often in this day and age (and physical conflict is usually short term) but just think about mental conflict and how this affects us in our modern world. This isn’t the only thing we have been blessed with by evolution. We also have a negativity bias. In other words a bias towards seeing things that are likely to cause us harm over and above things that are positive in our lives. Again, another survival factor. When faced with a nice juicy berry bush full of sustenance, if the wind just rustles the bush we see danger and we run. There may be a tiger in the bush and our negativity bias kicks in and assumes that is ‘probably’ the case!

If you combine negativity bias with our pre-disposition to fight, flight and freeze then you have a potential perfect storm of stress. Particularly in our modern world. These mechanism are usually inappropriate for us today. Rarely are our live is danger from external forces. But they still kick in whenever conflict arises.

This is where the yielding mind comes in. We learn an alternative reaction to any type of conflict. Let go and relax! This most definitely going to need a lot of practice. It is not going to happen over night and we are going to have to practice all the time. Mindfulness is going to be key to our success here. If we are going to embed this as a habit, we will have to be vigilant and practicing mind watching all the time. Again, as I have said before. We develop the habit on the cushion, we make progress in our daily lives. But here we need to develop a disciplined practice of mind watching every minute of the day. At work, at play, at home, at all times we mind watch. What are we watching? We are noticing our reaction to the world around us and in particular seeing our physical reaction. Our tightening. This is what we must pay attention to. The tightening. When we experience stress or conflict, there is a tightening in the heart and the gut. It is this we notice and we also pay attention to what is going on in our minds when this occurs. Generally, our 5 senses will have picked up the situation that is causing the response. Then our mind embellishes this. We watch and notice this process unfold and we observe how our body reacts. And the we focus on the tension and we encourage it to relax and let go. We can breathe in to the area.

The meditation practice. Very simply, we develop a meditation habit of focussing on our heart and our gut and offering a sense of soft compassion towards that area. Getting used to working in this way develops habit. If we spend half an hour each day meditating in this way we will start to notice the way it starts to influence our lives. We start to notice how we pay attention to our minds during the day and especially how we react when conflict arises. So we use mindfulness of breathing and we learn to breathe in to the heart space and encourage a feeling of softness there. Seeing our heart and gut area as a muscle that can be relaxed. This in turn has a softening affect on the mind.

Tai Chi practise also helps!

Introduction to Meditation – What is the nature of the Mind?

This post takes you through some of the fundamental understandings of Buddhist Psychology.

Here the audio here or read the post below.

In Buddhist meditation we practise 3 main types of meditation. It’s worth stating that ALL have sitting beneath them mindfulness.

They are

Samadhi – Simply put this means the development of concentration.

Vipassana –  The development of Insight or Wisdom.

Meta Bhavanna – Cultivation of compassion or loving kindness

All involve mindfulness and all therefore require us to come to terms with and understand our own minds.

So lets take a look at the nature of mind. Note that we are talking about mind here, rather than brain. The brain is the physical container. We need to understand the nature of mind and for this we use some visuals and images.

Firstly, we can view the mind as having layers and you will certainly discover the top two layers relatively quickly in your meditation. These layers are analogous to the sea.

The top layer is the very noisy layer with waves crashing and debris floating around there. This is a noisy, chaotic place. Here, in the mind we have our main thoughts passing through. What I call the ‘juggernaut’ thoughts. They have real substance and we normally latch on to them and believe they serve a purpose. Whether they do or not is to be discovered. For now, just seeing that they are there is enough. In meditation, we try to stay outside of the story of the thoughts. Just seeing them for what they are.

Below this is a fascinating layer. Just below the waves is a layer of foam. In our minds we have a layer like this. It is full of thousands of tiny thoughtlets all kicking off. Snippets of conversations, memories of faces, little bits of music. All firing off continuously.  This is a real place to study and can tell us a great deal about our subconscious mind if we tune in to it.

Then we have the deep dark ocean, and this is pure mind. Sometimes we access this in meditation. It is always there, and the two layers are always above.

This IS the way mind is. We have to accept the noisy chaotic nature of mind to allow us to progress with meditation and access the peace of that deeper part of the mind.

In order to allow us to view the mind in this way, we need to understand how mindfulness is even possible.

There are 3 parts to Mind. The first, we call Manas (The Pali word for mind). This is the part that carries out our thinking, worrying, planning etc and the part that we are most familiar with. The second is our store consciousness and it is on this that the Manas acts. Essentially this is analogous to memory but it is greater than that as it stores all of our prejudices, religious, phobias etc. Anything that can be stored, is held in here.

Finally we have what we call the gardener. This is the remarkable bit. This is the part of the mind that is able to watch the other two parts working together. It is a pure observer. This, we get in touch with in meditation.

To then take things forward we can start to see, through the application of mindfulness how the mind works. Over the weeks we do delve into these areas deeply but for now we can see what happens with our experience.

To understand this we must see that we have our main 5 senses but we have a 6th. The mind. Just as the other senses have triggers, so does the mind. For example, a particle enters the nose and triggers the sense of smell. In just the same way, a though enters our heads and triggers the sense of ‘mind’.

Buddhist psychology constructs a view of how our senses interact with the world around us and allow us to understand and experience our world in the way we do.

We need to understand that this isn’t a scientific model. It is an experiential one. The early followers of the Buddha used introspection and mindfulness to understand how we work and effectively drew this picture of how the mind works. After all, knowing which bits of the brain fire up is, without doubt, interesting but it doesn’t really help us understand our experience of mind.

When a trigger touches one of our sense organs, the first thing that happens is that they touch the sense doors and this is the contact with mind. At this stage the experience is usually unconscious. It is pure experience of the sense.

Next the mind creates an initial feeling or impression of the sense. This is a very complex process, driven by our past history of the particular sensory input.  We call this Vedanas and this is a detailed topic for another day. The moment, we can simply watch how the mind very quickly decides whether it likes or dislikes a particular sensory object.

Then the mind really kicks in! The process of interpretation. The mind spins off and embellishes the experience, draws conclusions and potentially produces emotional reaction.

All of this is an amazing process to watch. What is really phenomenal, the more you get in to this, is that the mind is of course one of these senses. The thoughts drifting through the mind are the triggers. So all of these stages that we have just looked at, we can also see happening with thoughts themselves!

So for our meditation today, we will use the mindfulness of breathing and examine the first two layers of mind, the waves and the foam!

Acceptance and Letting Go

These two phrases get used a great deal in this industry.

Listen to the audio or read the transcript below.

Often in this industry we hear the phrase “letting go”. There is a great relationship between letting go and acceptance and I’d like to take a look at this area here.

What are we letting go? Well from a practical and probably fairly superficial level, this could relate to material possessions. Many of us have more than we actually need in this day and age and recognise that we need to declutter.

The zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world, but accepting that they go away.

But I’d like to take this a little deeper here and move into the mental side of this discussion. The opposite of letting is holding on or grasping or indeed craving. Grasping is when we have something and we don’t want to let go of it. Craving is wanting more. It is this mental behaviour that causes a great deal of our suffering. Much of our suffering comes back to this and much of our unskilful behaviour is born out of it. This behaviour also hides itself well and can become ingrained habit. Even grasping or holding on to negative mental states. I have known people who have been depressed but have displayed a definite grasping nature to their depression. Not wanting to let it go! Certainly I’m sure we’ve all known people who have been generally angry. Often these people will actually fear letting go of their anger in case it somehow diminishes them.

Even spirituality can produce grasping and craving behaviours. There are plenty of examples in history where a religious leader imposes stringent rules on their followers to feed an ego, keeping the flock in check and aggressive behaviours are displayed when members of the spiritual community decide to leave. What was love, suddenly becomes anger and the person is potentially shunned.

But this isn’t an easy practise. We could give up our worldly goods, don a monks robes and live with a begging bowl. But if in our hearts we are still carrying the resentment for giving our lives up, we haven’t achieved anything. Conversely, it is entirely possible to live with all our wealth and material things around us and not be bound to them. To live without craving or grasping despite all these things. What matters, as always, is our mental response to our surroundings. Having said that, it is definitely simpler to practise with less of the clutter around us.

But we can take this a little deeper still. Many of us unfortunately suffer with physical illness. We are all getting older. Even those born yesterday have already started to age! Our physical being is another areas that we have a tendency to grasp on to. We face anxiety and even depression when our physical being is facing a long term problem. Some of us even worry over our physical bodies when they are in fine health. Michael Jacksons mental health problems seem to have been born out of a desire to live forever. So we also need to practise with and explore our relationship with our bodies, to see where craving and grasping are creeping in. We see plenty of craving behaviours. The whole of the cosmetic surgery industry has been established around this one. It is clearly good to maintain a healthy body in order to achieve our fullest potential (spiritual or otherwise) in life. But, we will all age and we will all die so we do have to come to terms with this otherwise we will become mentally or physically ill as a result of the grasping and craving at some point.

Some of Buddhist practise sounds incredibly pessimistic and difficult but in actual fact it is immensely practical. After all, we do know that not one person in the entire history of mankind has avoided death. (Although of course the Christians amongst us may debate this)

Then there is our relationships with people. Here we are looking at the affect that the other person has on our life and the effect we have on theirs. Love is when you are thinking … “how can I make you happy?” Attachment is when you are thinking … “why aren’t you making me happy?” Whether we are talking close partners family or just friends, this still applies. We saw last week in our meditation on chaos how each and everyone of us is infinitely different but us humans tend to try to deny this and place expectations on each other based on our own ideas and preconceptions about how the other should be. Here we are grasping at our own judgements and not accepting the other person as they are.

Grasping and craving start at the superficial and run deep. Their opposites are accepting and letting go. By accepting, we acknowledge that nothing lasts for ever and everything changes. Nothing is static so we have to accept that we can’t keep it and we must let it go.

The last one to investigate here is the letting go of self. This is the most challenging area. We attach to the image of self. Hard and Fast. Buddhist practise, particularly the 6 element practise (which we will go through in more depth at some point)  reveals to us directly, the lack of a permanent self. The strongest element is the conscious mind. But when we directly investigate the nature of the conscious mind we do not find self there. And we let go.

Our approach to studying this starts with meditation. I’ll say again, we practise on the cushion and we make progress when we get out in to the world.

The practise, whether we are on the cushion or not, is to actually take notice of our mental response to things and noticing when grasping and craving are creeping in. Then to look at how we offset that nature with acceptance and letting go. Every minute of every day we will get an opportunity to practise this so we will not be short of practise time!

I read a great quote recently by Polly Young-Eisendrath, a psychologist and meditation author.

The reason for learning… is not so that you can sit around and meditate. It’s like when you learn to drive a car in a parking lot. It’s not so you can drive that car in parking lots. You learn in the parking lot because it’s a restricted, safe area. When you [meditate] it’s like learning to drive in the parking lot. Then, in time, you take the car out onto the highway…. Practice is cultivated in order to get around in life….”

This is therefore how we practise in our meditation. We can explore our grasping and craving with our meditation. Noticing our desire for the noises from outside to go away as it may make us more concentrated, how we wish we could sit in perfect full lotus like the Tibetan masters we have seen on TV. Noticing our desires to keep our concentration focussed in a zen like state and never wavering. The magic is all in the noticing.