Wholeheartedness

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about resistance, how it manifests in meditation and daily life and how we can work with it. I have continued to sit with this subject, and I asked myself the question: what is it like when there is no resistance? The word wholehearted immediately came to mind.

I love this word wholehearted, always have; the sense of being completely engaged in whatever I am doing, no part of me left out or split off. And I don’t think we are talking about a rare or elusive state here. I think it is common to be wholeheartedly absorbed in our activities – immersed in a project at work, playing with the kids, engrossed in a good book, dinner with old friends.

But sometimes we are not wholehearted about what we are doing. As I was doing some housework I asked: what would it be to be wholehearted about this cleaning? Just asking that question had the effect of engaging me more with the task. And it didn’t mean that I needed to do a whole big spring-clean, just to look a bit more closely and be willing to put a bit more effort in to reaching awkward corners. Nothing earth-shattering. But it made a noticeable difference to how I felt.

Just asking the question – can I be more wholehearted about this? – will show up the places, the awkward dusty corners, which we resist. If we are then willing to put the effort in to do something about them, I think wholeheartedness will become a more frequent and familiar experience and resistance will be much easier to transform.

Two Books

img_0351I am reading a delightful book called The Book of Joy, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. These two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, and old friends, spent a week together in Dharamsala to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday and create this book which explores how to find joy in the face of the inevitable suffering in life. I found out about this book from one of my fellow monks who shares with me an appreciation of the importance of joy in the spiritual life.

The book also contains some brilliant photographs of the two of them together.

 

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The second book I am reading is also, in its way, about joy. Written for those who find themselves caring at home for a family member with dementia, the author’s intention is to provide information that will help carers to let go of their rigidity and fear so that they, and the person they are caring for, can relax and enjoy each other’s companionship. I am finding it a very illuminating book which is having the unexpected benefit of removing some of the fears I have of what life would be like if I developed dementia. If I ever do develop it, I hope that whoever may be caring for me has read this book! The book is called Speaking Dementia, by Frena Gray-Davidson. Thank you to S for recommending it.

Resistance

Resistance to our current experience, whether in meditation or the activities of daily life, is more than just dislike. Resistance is a pushing away, a refusal (though not necessarily consciously) to be open to the present moment. It is not a productive response and only leads to suffering, certainly for ourself and very likely for others.

Resistance can arise in meditation for any number of reasons and is likely to manifest either in physical restlessness or lots of mental activity such as strongly distracting thoughts or thoughts of doubt about meditation such as I can’t do this, it’s not doing any good, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing anyway etc.

In daily life there may be a job we know needs to be done, such as clearing out all the junk that has accumulated in the garage, but we have a powerful resistance to doing it. Our energy slumps at the very thought of it.

Learning to spot resistance and not judging ourself for it can be a major turning point in how we deal with these situations. Often there’s guilt involved; we want to be the person who can sit down and meditate for 30 minutes every day, we want to be the person who willingly tackles that garage and creates a tidy space, but we’re not, and we feel bad about it.

Another crucial thing to realise about resistance is that it is kept in place by our thoughts. We tell ourself stories, such as I’m too tired to do this now, and we don’t look any further. Resistance is a call to turn towards rather than turn away. There is something here that needs your kindly and non-judgemental attention. Being willing to experience the discomfort of resistance, even opening to it just a small crack, can allow in enough light to reveal what is needed.

Maybe something happened earlier that upset you and you’ve been avoiding those feelings, but now you can let them arise and pass through and you feel calmer. Maybe you really are too tired to tackle tidying the whole garage, but you are quite happy to limit yourself to one hour today spent sorting out a particular corner and doing another hour next weekend.

Being willing to recognise and face our own suffering, sit with it patiently and compassionately, is key, always.

What Is It To Be Still?

In the last few blog posts I’ve been examining the meaning of some commonly-used terms in Buddhism. This question – what is it to be still? – is of a different nature. This is a question that is not designed to be answered in words, though words may arise in response. The power of such a question lies in its resonance deep inside us.

I have just returned from a solitary stay in a cottage in a remote part of Wales. About half way through my stay I found myself living with this question. It would pop up at times during the day, when I was meditating or walking or cooking, driving, shopping. Sometimes it would be when I was feeling relatively still and sometimes it would come when I was a bit scattered. Each time it arose I tried to pay attention to the effect, which was to draw me towards stillness.

It is part of the Zen tradition to use a spiritual question to take one deeper into one’s meditation, but I think it is most helpful when it is a question that really engages you, something that you really want to know in your whole being. Perhaps a phrase you read in a book, or hear in a talk, grabs hold of you. Or perhaps you are aware of a lot of tension as you are sitting and the question arises – can I let go a little more?

If you find a question that captures you, you can encourage it to be active by purposely bringing it to mind as you go about your day or at the start of a meditation period. Simply drop the question into your consciousness and let it go. Don’t try to think about it, just get on with your meditation, or whatever you are doing. Trust that something inside responds. We don’t need to make anything happen.

Why Do We Complain?

Why do we complain? I’m not talking about complaining to a company if, for example, we receive poor quality goods or services. That, for me, is taking appropriate action. I’m talking about the grumbling that we do, either with others or in our own minds, that is not at all concerned with taking appropriate action.

Why do we do it? I can come up with suggestions: perhaps we feel powerless to take action; maybe we are afraid to actually take responsibility; or we want our friend to collude with us so we feel justified in our opinion.

But what really matters is that when we are in complaining mode we are not looking inward. All of our attention is focussed outward on the perceived injustice or bad behaviour of others or whatever. It is a way of avoiding being intimate with our own discomfort.

So that is why I put this as a question, which we can ask ourselves when we find we are complaining. Why am I complaining? What is it about me – not them – that is causing me to avoid  my feelings? Why am I disturbed by this situation/person?

You don’t necessarily need to come up with definite answers, the point is to direct your attention back inwards. We can’t rely on being able to change the outside world to suit us, but we can transform our relationship with the world.

How Can We Realise the Non-Dual?

In my previous post What is Non-Duality? I attempted to define what is meant in Buddhism by the terms duality and non-duality. In this post I would like to talk about the ways in which Buddhist practice helps us to realise the non-dual nature of existence.

In the previous post I said a little about how, when we meditate, we are letting go of our involvement with dualistic thinking. Basically our mind sees its job as keeping us safe, working out strategies to get the things we think are good for us and avoid the things we don’t want. The trouble is that our thoughts run in well-worn grooves, often on auto-pilot and not necessarily taking account of the full effect of our actions on ourself and others. So long as this state of affairs continues we are firmly planted in the world of duality.

So, to set up the conditions for the realisation of non-duality we first need to become aware of the workings of our mind, to see how we are driven by selfish desire, aversion and ignorance and how this causes suffering for ourself and others. This can be seen both on and off the meditation cushion. Plenty has been written about meditation and the cultivation of awareness in daily life so I won’t go into it here.

This naturally gives rise to the next step, which is the wish to do something about it i.e. to learn to let go of the attachment to desire, aversion and ignorance. Notice that it is the attachment to these that is the problem. There will always be things we like and things we don’t like, and that’s fine, and we need to see that we always have a choice how to respond, and the consequences of that choice are often far-reaching.

I think the attachment to desire and aversion is easily comprehended, but what is the attachment to ignorance? I understand it to mean the holding on to our own perceptions, concepts, views and opinions and the like, the unwillingness to admit that things might be different to what we think. We need to learn to hold our mental constructs, for that is what they are, more lightly, perhaps thinking of them as work-in-progress, or the best working model we have at the moment, and being willing to change and update them whenever a better or clearer understanding presents itself.

Holding our view of the world of duality more lightly, and cultivating awareness and letting go, will help us to set up the conditions for the realisation of the realm of the non-dual to arise, but it shouldn’t be seen as a goal to achieve. Keeping our focus on this moment and bringing all our care and attention to it is the best way to transform both ourself and our view of the world.

What is Non-Duality?

The conventional everyday world that we live in is described in Buddhism as the world of duality, or the realm of the opposites. The Sanskrit word for this is Samsara, meaning the world of birth and death.

For our minds to be able to process our environment we divide everything up into categories: East and West, women and men, left and right, day and night, table and chair, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, happy and sad etc. etc. This way of viewing the world is not a problem in itself, and indeed is necessary in order for us to be able to function. It is not the case that Samsara is “bad”.

The problem arises, however, when we believe that this is how things actually are, that night is separate from day, that I am separate from you, this country is separate from another country. Then we become scared and we look at everything around us in terms of whether it will cause us harm or bring us benefit. We fight to hold on to what we believe we must have and we push away everything that we don’t like.

Buddhism teaches us to see that we are looking at the world from a relative point of view, the view that I am the subject and everything else is an object which I can act upon or which can act upon me, when in actuality such separations do not exist. If we can start to let go of this point of view, let go of our judgements and opinions, or at least accept the possibility that there is another way of perceiving the world, then we may begin to get a sense of a much deeper reality, what is known as the realm of non-duality.

When we meditate we try to put down dualistic thinking, we let go of involvement with each impression that appears in our consciousness, allowing the mind the chance to rest in the non-dual.

The Heart That Trusts to the Eternal, by Kanshi Sosan (trans. Rev. Hubert Nearman) says:

Dualities are all

   what the false self deliberates upon;

They are the stuff of dreams and fantasies

   or as the spots before one’s eyes

      which are mistaken for flowers,

   so why struggle to grab on to these

      and cling to them?

Gain and loss, right and wrong:     

   let go of such things at once

      and forget all about them

For, when the eye does not close in sleep,

   all dreams cease of themselves.

When the mind does not discriminate,

   all things in the whole universe

      are the One Which Is.

What is Letting Go?

When we talk about letting go, whether it is of material stuff or mental stuff, what we are talking about is letting go of the attachment to the physical or mental object. If you haven’t read my previous blog post What is Non-Attachment? that would be a good place to start.

So letting go doesn’t mean we have to get rid of all our stuff, live on our own and never have an opinion about anything. Letting go means seeing where we have invested our sense of self in an object, a person or a thought (views, opinions, ideologies, likes, dislikes etc. are all thoughts) and being willing to look at that attachment as honestly as we can until we see through it and it can drop away.

What do I mean by seeing through it? Well, we often realise we have an attachment to something when the attachment is causing us to suffer – suffering gets our attention! Let’s say I really want an expensive pair of shoes. If I have the means to buy them then I probably won’t notice how that feeling of desire, of must-have, is actually painful. But if I can’t get those shoes and I really feel I must have them, then I will surely feel the suffering. If I am willing to transfer my attention away from how to get the shoes to the feeling inside me, and look at what I am believing, I may be able to see some version of the thought that I need these shoes in order to be happy. If I then ask myself if my future happiness truly depends on a pair of shoes I can hopefully see that this is not so. The attachment is seen through, the feeling of must-have drops away.

Sometimes this happens in a second – I only have to think why on earth am I letting myself get all het up about this? and it’s gone. Other times it takes a lot more sticking with to unravel. Sometimes the unraveling involves active questioning, other times it means sitting as still as I can with the discomfort and letting it reveal itself fully. Either way, I must be willing to look at it. I can’t force myself to drop it, can’t just turn away from it, it will still be there next time I look around, though maybe in a different form.

The root cause of all our attachments is the illusion of separation that makes us feel we need to acquire or achieve things in order to be whole. Each time we see through an attachment it takes us nearer to seeing through the whole illusion of separation and realising that there never could be any lack.

What is Non-Attachment?

The idea of non-attachment can sound cold and unfeeling. After all, we feel attached to our loved ones, our homes, to beautiful objects and experiences. Perhaps we see Buddhist monks giving all these things up when they enter a monastery and feel that if being a Buddhist means we must say goodbye to all that we hold dear and makes life worth living then Buddhism is not for us.

However, if we look at what non-attachment really means we shall see that we are not being asked to give up the people and things that we love, but to examine our relationship to them in a way I will describe in a moment. Far from becoming unfeeling, non-attachment is actually pointing to a much deeper love, respect and appreciation for all aspects of life than we ever thought possible.

Let’s look first at the word attachment. Dictionaries define it as an emotional bond, a feeling that binds one to a person, thing, ideal etc. In other words we are tying our emotions to the object of our attachment, expecting the object to provide us with the feeling of happiness, contentment, self-worth or whatever it is that we feel we need. You could say that we are placing demands on the relationship, whether it is with a person or the latest iPhone or the new gym membership. And when the day comes, sooner or later, that the object of our attachment fails to provide us with the emotion we desire we experience suffering.

Our response may be to look for another friendship, a newer phone, a different gym. But this is an endless cycle. And Buddhism teaches us that it is based on the false perception that we are separate beings, insufficient, with holes that we need to fill.

Instead of jettisoning the object of our dissatisfaction we can gain much self-knowledge by considering why we are so disappointed. What is it that we were expecting to gain from the relationship with this person or thing or ideology or whatever? And is it really true that you need an “external” object to provide it? Can it actually do so? Do you want to be dependent in this way? Or is it possible that there is no hole to be filled, that you are sufficient, you are whole, that maybe you are not actually separate from everything/everyone else in the first place?

Asking these questions, in order to see how and why we bind ourselves, and that it is all based on a faulty premise, puts us on the path of non-attachment, the ultimate purpose of which is to realise truth. On the way, we find that when we don’t place demands on the people and things we are drawn to we actually have a much deeper and more rewarding relationship with them.

William Blake wrote:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Why Question?

It is possible that we may balk at the idea of being asked to believe something in blind faith, especially where religion is concerned, but unquestioningly take our own assumptions, opinions and beliefs to be true.

I distinguish here between faith and blind faith. Faith is indispensable on the Buddhist path. Until we ourselves reach Enlightenment, and possibly forever afterwards, there will always be teachings that we cannot verify by our own experience yet we have faith in them because we have done a certain amount of practice and found it to confirm enough of the basic teachings to encourage us to continue.

I use the term blind faith to mean that we are wilfully blind, resisting examining an idea that is capable of being examined albeit that there is a limit to how far reason can take us.

My point is that thinking can be used to eliminate a lot of misperceptions and limited or just plain wrong understandings and thus make the way clearer for truer understandings and insights to arise. You can start with any thought that you find yourself believing, for example: I can’t do this. (Whatever this may be.) Is that true? Or do you not want to try? Why? Through such questioning we can come to a deeper understanding of ourselves and, for example, the Buddha’s teachings on the cause of suffering.

We can also listen to what we say and question ourselves – do I really understand what I am saying? Do I actually know that to be true? Have I thought about it? Or you can deliberately choose a word or concept, such as I did in my previous post about the meaning of acceptance, and explore your understanding of it as far as you can go. It will take application and effort, but has the potential to be highly rewarding.

I can’t finish without this wonderful quote by the theologian and psychologist Thomas Moore who says that “The point in thinking is to reach the far edge of understanding and to stand there in wonder.”