Available energy

From chapter “Stewarding Resources: Viriya Pāramī” by Ajahn Sucitto:

Let’s consider energy or viriya. Energy is fundamental for all of us and to anything we do. When our energy is bright and steady we feel good and act effectively; when it’s low or scattered we feel bad and mess up. So energy is relevant both as the resource of vitality and as the way that we apply that resource….

However, the topic of energy can bring up an uneasy feeling: when I’m already tired, and stressed, do I have the capacity or the interest to exert myself further? Well, that worry itself is another wave that has to be met and enquired into.

A wise response to that worry would be to say that the priority is to learn how to conserve energy and not dissipate it. Also, energy needs to be regulated: many of our problems are connected with either not having enough energy, so that we feel flat, or having too much of it, so that we’re overcharged and bursting at the seams. The irregularities are because the mind’s natural inclination is to orbit and check out what’s happening in its external and internal domain – so its attention gets caught by attraction, aversion or confusion. These forces can capture energy and overwhelm the mind. So the degree of exertion should be determined in accordance with what we’re meeting. When we’re tired out, energy is most usefully applied to kindness, and letting go of the need to sort out business. Then we come out of the grip of confused priorities. And in all cases, mindfulness – acknowledging the present state of the mind – is essential….

Entire book can be downloaded here: https://forestsangha.org/teachings/books/parami-ways-to-cross-life-s-floods?language=English

The previous post was about deciding what we should do next, and one determinant of that is the level and quality of our available energy, right now.

Ven. Sucitto’s words identify a common discomfort with talking about energy: most of the time, we feel that we should have more energy than we do – not a helpful beginning. As with all mindfulness practices, we try to discern what IS, not what we wish were the case.

If our energy is in balance, our choices are clear; with reflection, we can choose wisely. But what if our energy is scattered, wound up, and anxious or low and resistive? What then? In either case, task number one is to recognize what energy, both physical and mental, we have available at the moment. If we’re unsure, an honest inventory of our physical sensations should be revealing. Anxiety and lethargy can be felt in the face, torso, hands, etc. What is the quality of our breathing? Free and deep or tense and shallow?

The breath can be used to understand our energy level and also to regulate it. A few deep, slow breaths can dissipate an energy overload AND can bring extra oxygen to bear on weary minds and bodies. With our energy not too low and not too high, we can meet whatever conditions are present without defensiveness or aggression. We can inquire into the elements of our current experience and discover for ourselves what’s true, whether action is called for, and what might be best to do next.

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Filed under Causes and results, Mindfulness, Perfections, The 8-fold path

What should I do now?

A wise person once said that the only important question is: What should I do now? It is a simplification, but a useful one. With our actions, we make our karma, we make ourselves, we create and destroy things in the world. Whether we find ourselves in a fraught situation or just mulling over our next move, how do we decide what to do now?

It will not surprise you that I frame my own response in terms of the Buddha’s four truths and the Eight-fold path, but I recently came across another useful formulation. In Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise, there is a quote from an interview with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (http://www.rabbisacks.org) which states that the determinants of happiness are:

  1. Do good for others
  2. Have a network of strong and supportive relationships
  3. Have a sense that one’s life is worthwhile

In terms of actions and their results, Rabbi Sacks recommends the same path as the Buddha – wholesome words and actions and noble friendships.

In my mind, the goals above are sequential. If we do good for others, we will naturally build a network of strong and supportive relationships, and from these we may get the sense that our life is worthwhile. This is not a philosophy but an action plan. We can think and plan and wish, but in the end it’s what we do that matters most.

It’s true that for some people, the idea of turning towards the needs of others is a struggle.  A good friend with a long history of depression once told me that when you are depressed it’s impossible to think about anyone else. This came as a shock to me, but I have no reason to doubt her words. For people wrestling with their own demons, there is a responsibility to try new remedies, new possibilities for coming into balance. One of those might be joining a support group, where one’s own burden is respected, but there are also others who are visibly suffering and might benefit from our attention.

For most of us, the option of considering the needs of others is almost always available. We can be on time to appointments so others don’t have to wait for us; we can check in with people who are in distress or transition; we can share what we’ve got, whether we’ve made it ourselves or not; we can encourage people in doubt.

I’ve recently had elective surgery that has temporarily made getting around a lot harder. The care and attention I’ve received from both expected and unexpected sources has been inspiring. There are a few people for whom giving steady, caring attention to most of the people they know is their natural instinct. Generosity of all kinds is contagious, so these  relationships are constantly nourished by actions that demonstrate mutual regard. This is my aspiration, to choose caring actions more and more of the time.

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Choosing vs clinging

The Buddha’s four truths, simply stated, are: dukkha, the origin of dukkha (clinging), the cessation of dukkha, and the path toward the cessation of dukkha (the eight-fold path). These are principles that we can organize our thinking and actions around. If we really come to understand dukkha in our experience, if we stop wishing that things would be different and nicer and accept conditions as they are, the rest of the path can flow quite freely. Accepting the truth of dukkha can unblock our view and energy.

When developing this skill, one tricky question is: how can we tell the difference between clinging and simply choosing? There are many things that we want and don’t want. How can we tease apart our selfish desires from our wise choices? If we want someone else to change, that’s clinging, and it’s unlikely to be rewarding. If we want to change ourselves, that desire may or may not qualify as clinging. It comes down to a question of intention and motivation. Do we want to change in ways that garner us more attention, maybe from someone whose attention we feel we lack? Do we want to appear younger, smarter, kinder than our actions reflect? What is moving us to do what we do?

At the most basic level, clinging has to do with me and mine – gratification, self-promotion, recognition, etc. There is a narrow, subjective point of view at work: I want that (or don’t want that) and I’m going to get it (or avoid/eliminate it).

There is another point of view we can start from, where we recognize and respect our interconnectedness with other beings. If we want to get healthier and more fit, is our desire driven by a beauty competition mind-set? Or do we want to care for ourselves and therefore be better able to care for others, to do what we do with more grace and energy?

Discovering our intentions and motivations seems inextricably connected with our actions. How we actually spend our time, and with whom, what we spend our money on, etc., will tell us what we need to know. Some people are naturally service-oriented; they’re good listeners, they are generous, they are always thinking of what others need or would like, they look for opportunities to nurture and support others. Some of us have to work harder to re-orient our view in this direction; we have to keep reminding ourselves of what’s important. Once we become sensitive to this question, though, we start to recognize the tight, limited feeling of clinging and the spacious, open-hearted feeling of choosing wisely.

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Letting go

The Buddha’s first truth is the truth of dukkha. After we acknowledge and know dukkha, what comes next? If we fully face and accept any form of pain or discomfort, one breath at a time, then it’s just what is and it moves along. If we add aversion, “I don’t want this! This has to stop!”, then the aversion is the main event. Aversion is a form of clinging, and it causes us to take hold of the suffering and keep it close.

The work of the Buddha’s second truth is to recognize  clinging, as it happens in our consciousness, and to abandon it.

Traditionally there are three kinds of clinging: (1) sensual desire, (2) desire for becoming (something), and (3) desire to get rid of (something). Measured by time, most of our grasping has to do with sensual desire, and it’s likely that we barely notice it. We like the sun on our face and feel we deserve it, we don’t like the barking dog and wish it would stop, we dream of the cake we’ll have later, we dread a scheduled event — it seems perfectly normal to drift from one moment of unconscious grasping to the next.

Some of us are moved more by greed and some by aversion, but the result is the same if we are at the mercy of our clinging. There’s a world of difference between “this feeling/thought is mine” and “this feeling/thought is happening”.

The second and third types of clinging have to do with our idea of ourself. We want to become more “like this” and less “like that”, perhaps more generous and less fearful, or richer and stronger and less subject to various constraints.

All three types of clinging are ways of grasping at experience, trying to direct it to satisfy an idea of how we’d like to feel. If we recognize clinging as it appears, we have the option of just dropping it, abandoning it, letting it go.

Ajahn Sucitto offers this quote in his book Pāramī: “Ajahn Chah said that being a monk is knowing about letting go, but being unable to do so for ninety percent of the time.” It’s humbling to think that we need to see our clinging and know that it’s possible to let it go ten times for every time that we succeed in letting go. And yet, if we keep watch over our minds, every tenth time, we can experience freedom.

“…contemplate the spacious mind that is welcoming experiences rather than always trying to control experience.” (Ajahn Sumedho from “The Fearless Mind”)

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Compassion for our bodies

Our bodies cannot be ignored; they are with us all the time, although we tend to take them for granted when they are not causing us trouble. Our physical and mental states can reinforce each other, for good or ill. This is a relationship we can reflect on.

We are all subject to an endless variety of aches and pains: colds & congestion, fever, nausea, bone and muscle pain. Do we recognize these as opportunities, from which we can learn patience and compassion or new ways to deepen our awareness?

Matthew Sanford became a paraplegic in a devastating car crash at age 14. Surprisingly, he is now an accomplished yoga teacher and inspirational speaker (http://www.matthewsanford.com).

In an interview with Krista Tippett (from her book Becoming Wise) we learn that Sanford disagrees with the statement “My body has failed me.” He says that our bodies, as long as they possibly can, will be faithful to living. That’s what they do — they re-group to recover. Our bodies are working as hard as they can to keep life going. Knowing this, we can view our bodies with compassion or gratitude rather than impatience or resentment.

Our bodies can be the cause of tremendous fear and also joy. Because something very deep in us believes that our bodies are the most essential part of us, whenever the body seems threatened or to be breaking down, we may feel we’re under attack. Similarly, pleasant physical sensations can make us forget everything else. It’s so hard for us to keep perspective! If we attend to our bodies with mindfulness, we will notice its changing nature. We might remember that we’ve survived physical challenges, pains, etc. and even anticipate that we might be confronted with other challenges in the future. If we live long enough, we will have to witness the decay of our bodies – the diminishment of our senses, the encroachment of chronic illnesses, the changing of bodily functions. Can we appreciate that our physical bodies are doing the best they can, this whole time?

This is a reflection without an endpoint. Mindfulness of the body is a home port we can return to again and again; we can know it more and more deeply. When we really know our bodies, through direct experience, mindfully, continuously, we come to know the whole world as it is.


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The ultimate dukkha?

From the chapter “Knowing Not Knowing” in Don’t Take Your Life Personally by Ajahn Sumedho:

We tend to want to believe an authority and people ask me ‘What do Buddhists believe happens to them when they die?’ …Well, I can give the various theories that Buddhists have — and I don’t deny them; I am not saying they’re wrong — but at this moment, at this time, they are theories, just speculation, ideas. ‘Death’ right now is an idea, isn’t it? It is a perception of the end when this body stops functioning, when it is no longer a conscious form. So this helps me to recognize that I don’t have to know what happens after physical death, because I can’t know, and it doesn’t really matter.

What I am pointing to is that in awareness death for me right now is — don’t know!

Perhaps this is why we fear death, because we can’t know what comes afterwards. There is no expert who can tell us, no one who’s been there and come back (near-death experience is something else). It’s the same mystery as where we were before we were born.

One reason I love hospice volunteering is that the clients, staff, and volunteers all inhabit the world of “don’t know”. It offers a sense of being alive that is immediate, real, consequential, and open-ended. It takes some practice to get comfortable with not-knowing, but it can be very freeing. We know that we don’t know, can’t know, what will happen next, but we do know that it’s important to be fully present for whatever comes.

This is what Ajahn Sumedho is pointing out. If we face the question of death honestly, our own or someone else’s, we have to accept not-knowing. At the same time, when someone we care about dies, the grief is something we can know fully. We can know grief, with all its ups and downs, sadness and comforts, awkwardness and surprises, intensity and (even) dullness. Grief is for the living; it’s one of the many mindstates that we experience sometime during our lives.

Here’s an interesting question to ask ourselves: Which do we fear more, our own death or the death of a loved one? How  do our feelings about these two certainties differ? Can we accept that we don’t know who will die next? Just sitting with these questions, whether there are answers (today) or not, can lead us deep into the present.

When facing or considering death or grief, the most important guideline is to NOT look away, not suppress or deny either the facts or our feelings about them. As with all dukkha, our duty is to acknowledge and understand it. We can do this.

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Filed under Death and dying, Dukkha

Peaks and valleys

In thinking about dukkha, or ordinary human dissatisfaction, we can observe how our experience seems to go from one (relative) extreme to another. We might have a truly sublime meditation session and emerge with a lingering sense of peace and compassion for all beings. The next sitting might be less glorious and may result in a feeling of disappointment because we remember the former peak experience. Isn’t this the way of things? We ride the peaks and hope that they will last, and then our hopes are dashed when the inevitable trough comes.

We can’t have waves without troughs between them. Sometimes the waves and troughs are of relatively small amplitude and sometimes they are enormous, even overwhelming. If we are suffering grief or sadness, we may be surprised by moments when the clouds clear and we feel light. But how could we know sadness if we didn’t know joy? And how could we know joy if we didn’t know sadness? This was the great lesson of a popular animated movie called “Inside Out” (2015). We can try to be happy all the time, but it’s not sustainable. It’s not the nature of human life to be always sad or always happy.

Sometimes we experience gain, sometimes loss; sometimes disrepute and sometimes fame; sometimes blame and sometimes praise; sometimes pleasure and sometimes pain. No one escapes these peaks and valleys, though our kamma may incline us towards some experiences more than others. These are the eight worldly conditions the Buddha discusses in Anguttara Nikaya 8.6, where he points out that an “uninstructed worldling” will meet all of these conditions with obsession, which inevitably causes suffering. But one who sees things as they are meets all eight wordily conditions with the understanding: “this is impermanent, this is dukkha, this is subject to change”. She is not obsessed by conditions as they come and go, and is not attracted or repelled by them.

The Third Patriarch of Zen wrote a long poem, the first verse of which is:

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

Can we find the internal gyroscope that will help us steady ourselves on the heaving ship of our experience? Can taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha help us to keep ourselves upright when the boat rocks? Do we have some other internal stabilizer?

It would be nice if there were a quick fix for our trials, but we know that balance is acquired painstakingly, one mindful moment at a time. Shutting down doesn’t work; running away doesn’t work. We have to find a way to be fully here, now, with all of it — the good, the bad and the ugly, the highlights and the lowlights. If we accept the challenge of living unreservedly, in intimate, flowing contact with our own direct experience, we’ll be moving in the right direction.


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Filed under Dukkha, General, Patience