Where to start?

We all know, or at least believe, that mindfulness is a good thing, that it is far superior to its opposite, inattention or carelessness. Likewise with compassion; it’s never out of place for us to project kindness and compassion towards others, though it isn’t always appropriate to express it verbally.

Mindfulness and compassion are not static qualities that we can acquire and cherish, any more than this current breath is ownable. They are noble human qualities that we all have in some measure and that we can cultivate and embody continuously (or nearly so) through persistent practice. The starting point is either knowing or believing this: our practice – our actions, words, and thoughts – can change us and influence those around us.

We can start with a simple sitting practice of 10 or 20 minutes a day. Any method will do if we can perceive for ourselves that we are calmer at the end than we were at the start. Many people find mantra meditation (a silently repeated word or phrase) easiest to start with, or listening to recorded guided meditations. What is not meditation? Reading or listening to music, which can make us feel calmer but serve to distract us from the workings of our mind rather than turn our attention towards them.

It’s very useful to pair sitting practice with at least one “daily life” practice, e.g., brushing our teeth mindfully, a gratitude diary, taking a deep breath before speaking, walking meditation, lifting and placing things gently. If we attend to our daily habits, we may notice one that is able to interrupt our trajectory when we’re acting mindlessly. Whatever works to bring mindfulness to our immediate experience is part of the training.

An essential element of successful bhavana (cultivation) is to mindfully note what is working well and what isn’t. We can choose a daily habit to practice with that is a challenge but not beyond our capabilities. If our sitting practice doesn’t seem to be improving after a month of steady effort, then a different method can be tried. It would be nice if there were a fixed curriculum that would work for all of us, bringing us ever closer to awakening, but alas, all paths need to be customized to some degree. Some of us start out with lots of calm but not much curiosity, and others of us are the reverse. Many of us have a fixed view that forms an obstacle and must be worked through, sometimes by unconventional means. What we all need is persistent attention and faith in the process.



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Denial, anger, resignation (greed, hatred, delusion)

The previous post was a little out of the ordinary because it addressed an issue that could be seen as political. Recently, I was lucky enough to have a pre-publication peek at an academic article by Ven. Analayo titled: “A Task for Mindfulness: Facing Climate Change”. Among other things, Analayo Bhikkhu draws parallels between three likely responses to the climate crisis and the three unwholesome roots that lie deep in all of our psyches.

Early and late in the article, Ven. Analayo stresses the importance of knowing what’s going on in our minds; he encourages us (as the Buddha does) to track the movements of our thoughts and emotions, and to take responsibility for them. We can’t prevent thoughts and emotions from arising, but we can decide whether to let them drive our actions or not. As Buddhist scholar and teacher Andrew Olendzki said: “We don’t have free will, but we have free won’t.

Three common reactions to the climate emergency are denial, anger, and resignation.

Denying the reality of the crisis can be seen as a form of greed. We want to continue enjoying our unsustainable habits of consumption (preferably without guilt) which requires that we deny there is an emergency. We need to shut out the suffering and extinction of other living beings to protect our lives as they are, that is, full of sensual comfort and pleasure. We are unlikely to give up all of our extravagant habits immediately, but it is important that we acknowledge the level of privilege we take for granted.

Anger has a direct parallel to the second unwholesome root, aversion or hatred. While it is true that political and corporate leaders (and lobbyists) bear more responsibility for the climate crisis than most other individuals, we are all complicit. We are all vulnerable to short-term and “If I’m OK, then it’s OK” types of thinking. Scapegoating individuals taps into the anger root, and leads nowhere. The Buddha said that when we are angry we can’t think straight and our own experience bears this out; a mind clouded by anger is not inclined to compassion.

Resignation, trending towards despair, is the third response mentioned in the article, and this one draws on the unwholesome root of delusion. We think we know what’s going on, but we don’t; we like simple solutions, but we’re faced with a complex problem. Many of us feel overwhelmed and helpless. However, we can trust in the fact that all actions (and some inactions) have consequences. We are a small but not insignificant part of an unimaginably large universe of causes and results.

What can we do? We can humbly accept that our individual actions will not solve the crisis; however, we can also take responsibility for reducing our contribution to the decline of earth’s systems. We can practice simplicity, incorporate compassion in our decision-making process, and put our resources where we have reason to believe they will join with others and result in reducing harm.

Posted in Causes and results, Compassion, General, Harmlessness, Karma, Mindfulness, Non-taking, Sublime states | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mindfulness and the climate crisis

Analayo Bhikkhu recently proposed a radical response to the climate crisis: we can choose to commit to mindfulness and compassion, both at the personal and the collective, public level. We can refuse to participate in the increasing polarization, fear, and animosity that has been escalating in the public conversation around this issue. We can accept unequivocally that many species have already been pushed into extinction by human fecklessness and that the human race itself faces unavoidable, catastrophic consequences. We can accept this reality and meet it with mindfulness and compassion. From that space, both personally and within various groups, we can choose our words and actions.

For many of us who heard this proposition, it was a new idea, and the vision is still being worked out. But at a personal level, we can consider what our response could be. We can face the facts as they are: increasing weather-related disasters, thousands of people displaced by rising tides and climate-related conflict, political dysfunction (including armed civil conflict) based on resource-related issues, the extinction of many species of insects, flora, and fauna, unbreathable air in many places, and a shrinking supply of potable water. All this, plus the increasingly fractious question of how to construct a response with planetary scope when the world has never faced a problem on this scale before.

It is tempting to lay blame and respond with feelings of hatred. Righteous anger has a lot of appeal, but it is a form of delusion. The power surge that “righteous anger” makes us feel is simply the exertions of a flailing ego; we can’t bear to be powerless! Ignorance, delusion, hypocrisy, mendacity and all the rest are on prominent display. We can avoid adding our own delusional anger to the mix.

What would happen if thousands of individuals and groups said no to the pitched battle? What if we waited to speak or act until we were certain that our words and actions were based on mindfulness and compassion, not just for the obviously suffering, but for all beings? What would we look and sound like?

The purpose of this life is not to live forever, nor to live with maximum comfort, but to live fully, mindfully, and compassionately, with integrity. We can act in ways that express both the seriousness of the situation and are calm and reasoned. We can write letters or do whatever we feel is best as citizens, but if we abandon mindfulness and compassion, we have simply joined the painful scrum of conflict.

For all of our sakes, we must find ways to bring mindfulness and compassion to the discourse. We can start by intentionally embodying these qualities, listening and understanding all the irrational emotions (including our own), most of which have to do with denying the reality before us. If we truly accept our own extinction with equanimity, if we acknowledge that there is nowhere to hide or withdraw to, this by itself is a powerful statement, an acknowledgment of the truth of dukkha.

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We are so well primed for bad news or challenges. We take a deep breath, maybe grit our teeth, and carry on.

How do we respond when something delightful happens? Especially if it’s unexpected, when we’re surprised by joy? It can be hard to switch gears and let go into the pleasantness. It is possible (or likely) that we fail to notice moments of joy because we’re unaccustomed to fully appreciating them, of allowing them to sink all the way into our hearts.

When something really lovely happens, e.g., a satisfying visit with an old friend or a beautiful walk in a natural setting, the experience itself is enjoyable and we can also bask in the afterglow, the memory of it.

Muditā is usually translated as sympathetic or appreciative joy, that is, joy in the good fortune of others. A closely related Pali word is pāmojja, gladness or joy. Both of these words describe a type of joy that is free of clinging; we sink into it rather than grasp onto it. There’s a spaciousness to these kinds of joy that make them wholesome and shareable. If our seat on an airplane is unexpected upgraded, that’s a personal joy; if we witness someone else experience good fortune and we are pleased by it, then it’s a shared joy, however small. When a toddler charms us with her antics, we smile and understand that anyone in the vicinity is welcome to participate in this happiness.

Because instances of dukkha are so recognizable and well-marked, we tend to focus on them and to overlook the ordinary pleasures that life presents. Disasters, large or small, can be dramatic and naturally create noise and responsive activity. But even great joys are often received in silence because our hearts are stilled; joy might cause tears to come, or a touch to be offered, but it doesn’t call for a fuss.

Ordinary joy can be noticed and cultivated, and supports the growth of mindfulness. Rather than looking for problems to solve, we could seek out instances of happiness that are simply present in the world. If we are in a crowd, many faces may appear distracted or worried, but some will be expressing contentment or happiness. We can tune into their channel and harmonize with their mood. It is not true that to be happy makes us stupid; it’s more likely that when we’re not actively upsetting ourselves, more clarity will be available. One form of joy is simply non-self-agitation; we can turn our attention to mindful observation of ourselves or others and self-consciousness will automatically diminish.

All four of the sublime states are available to us nearly all the time. When we turn our attention in that direction, we care what happens to ourselves and others, we feel compassion for people who suffer, we’re joyful with others, and we can rest in a balanced and calm mental state. Both we and others experience these states, and when we share them, joy can grow without limit.

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Direct speech

Some of us are great avoiders; we’d rather keep the peace than ask for what we want or need. We bury our anger at slights real and imagined. We may assume that others’ words or silence has meanings that weren’t intended. It can be difficult to find the sweet spot between speaking our minds and holding an intention for compassion and non-harming in our hearts.

Some of us speak our minds a bit more quickly than might be ideal. We state opinions that we feel are clearly the only rational option, without considering that others may hold opposing views, or that our assertions could touch sensitivities that we don’t see. It is easy to assume that everyone within earshot agrees with us when the issue seems obvious.

There is also the case where two people avoid saying things directly and both come away thinking the other person doesn’t want to talk about it, whatever it is. Or that the other person is fine with whatever we had in mind, even though we didn’t say it out loud. So much confusion!

The Buddha offered three criteria for wholesome speech:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it beneficial?
  3. Is it the right time?

We can apply these questions to all kinds of talk. If we are catching someone up on a mutual acquaintance, we can confine ourselves to facts we believe, on some evidence, to be true. We can consider whether the person being talked about would agree to our passing on their news to someone else. What might the expected result be? What is our intention in this conversation? Are we hoping to motivate the listener to help in some way?

If there is something awkward that needs to be said, we can first ask ourselves whether it’s actually our place to bring up the topic. Things that might be taken as criticism should only be offered by people who are close and trusted enough that the hearer might actually listen. Even if our comment is true and we think it would be beneficial, if the person is not likely to be receptive, it’s not the right time. Never might be exactly the right time.

Close friends can help each other by speaking directly about behavior that could be improved. If someone tells us that a comment we made that we considered uncontroversial ended up touching a nerve for someone, we ought to say thank you and then apologize to the offended person if appropriate. We also have a duty to speak up if something patently offensive is being said in a group. It might be easier to let it pass, but if we do that, we are colluding in views that are harmful or hateful. An example would be racist speech, or disparaging any group of “others”. We might choose to pointedly excuse ourselves from conversations we consider to be causing harm or hurt.

If we have something helpful to say, we can wait until we discover the best possible way and time to say it. Or we can decide that silence is the better option. It’s up to us.

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Aaargh! – No!

Some of us tend towards greed; we scan our field of vision and respond to things that we enjoy. Others of us tend in the other direction, toward aversion. We see what we don’t like, what we want to protect ourselves from, what we wish would go away. Both greed and aversion are forms of craving, which leads to clinging, the primary cause of dukkha (definition here: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca1/dukkha.html)

Just as desire for sense pleasure is a trap for people with a tendency towards greed, unchecked aversion doesn’t lead anywhere wholesome. We can go down a rabbit-hole of “Not this, not that, yuck, no, no, no”.

As with most mindfulness practice, the first step is to recognize what’s happening. We might start with physical reactions or mental ones. When we see a long line of people waiting for exactly the service we’ve come for, the heart may sink; when the weather turns wet or blowy and we’re unprepared for it, resistance may register somewhere in our upper bodies; when we smell something unpleasant, or see someone we don’t like, we may instinctively wrinkle our nose and look for escape. Other reactions are possible, but we have to be alert to the fact that we have responses and we have choices.

An excellent option is to NOT SAY ANYTHING out loud when have an aversive reaction. It’s remarkable what an effective tool this is. Once we’ve complained or expressed dislike, the response magnifies immediately. Not only does the thing we dislike become more significant, but we ourselves become more real, more solid, of more consequence. All of our energy becomes concentrated on this one point. Not verbalizing our preferences has the additional benefit of allowing us to experience the dislike directly, intimately, and (we hope) completely. What physical and mental elements make up this particular instance of aversion? It may not be rational or pleasant, but what is it? We can watch self-justification in action. In this way we turn our attention to how our minds work, and we can notice that our thoughts are neither consistent nor under our control. It may be that we have to see this truth directly many times before we come to believe it in general.

If we are aware of our inclination towards aversion (or greed), we can contextualize our responses. For example, it may be true that we know our initial reaction will be “no!” to just about anything. But we can also know that only our second reaction should be taken seriously. We can even laugh at ourselves when we notice this.

It has been said that noticing what’s wrong and trying to escape or get rid of it, i.e. aversion, is a mark of one who is pursuing wisdom. If we get caught up in our aversion, we’ll never mature; but if we use our aversion to unearth its deep roots, we may discover ways to release the clinging that causes us to suffer.

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Desire vs craving

Desire and craving may sound like synonyms, but in the Buddha’s teachings, they are distinct. Desire can be wholesome or unwholesome. We can want to do a good job, or to be of assistance to others, to practice meditation diligently, to exercise our generosity on a regular basis, to listen well, etc.

On the other hand, we can desire things that have nothing to do with our wholesome tendencies. When the desire is for our own satisfaction alone, apart from its effect on anyone else, it is likely to fall into the category of craving. Craving is most often associated with sensory pleasure: good tastes, pleasant sounds and smells, and things that are nice to touch. [Aversion is also a form of craving, to be addressed in the next post].

Being attracted to another person can easily become craving, or a lust so powerful that we forget what’s important. Individually, we may have preferred stimuli that can seem irresistible.

Mindfulness can have a dramatic effect on how we experience the world. We cannot avoid our bodily senses coming into contact with sense objects. We feel hot or cold; desirable and undesirable sights, sounds, and smells are all around us. Our liking and not-liking (vedanā) is a continuous process. None of this is unwholesome in itself, but there is always danger.

When there is no dominant liking or not-liking going on, often there is a background dissatisfaction. We crave entertainment, usually in a form that affirms our self in some way. Again, this is all perfectly natural, and if we are not mindful, it presents the danger of becoming more and more caught up in unwholesome thinking.

Here is what Robert Wright had to say:

[from Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright] … Then, in the next causal link, feelings give rise to tanha, to “craving”: we crave the pleasant feelings and crave to escape the unpleasant feelings. … Here is how Bhikkhu Bodhi put it in a series of lectures he recorded in 1981: “It is here in this space between feeling and craving that the battle will be fought which will determine whether bondage will continue indefinitely into the future or whether it will be replaced by enlightenment and liberation. For if instead of yielding to craving, to the driving thirst for pleasure, if a person contemplates with mindfulness and awareness the nature of feelings and understands these feelings as they are, then that person can prevent craving from crystallizing and solidifying.”

So, feelings (liking/not-liking) arise and then what? If we are not mindful, we slide directly into craving and we identify with the craving and a solid self appears and is confirmed in our minds. This self is demanding, not so concerned with others, and unable to be satisfied in any meaningful way, and that’s the trap. Once we’re in it, it’s hard to escape.

If our mindfulness is active from the beginning of the process, we know that sensations are just sensations and do not require an owner. Preferences are preferences, pleasant and unpleasant feelings are, in themselves, insubstantial. By living lightly in this way, not claiming experience as “mine”, we can cultivate freedom.

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