I will never forget the time I have spent working in intensive care departments. As a counsellor and rehabilitation therapist this was never my chosen field but in my physiotherapy course I was trained to do respiratory work in ICU and could be called in to work there at night. This pattern of working rather enhanced my view of the place as a strange twilight zone. I would arrive often in something of a dreamy state and find myself somehow trying to empathise with the dreamy world of semi-conscious patients. There was a lot of pain and grief mixed up with the heavy sedation. Many of the procedures on the patients were very intrusive – needles, tubes, suction.
Then there was always the rude awakening coming for me, putting on the gloves and working out the read-outs from the instruments before launching in. Here, on the whole, I needed to be focussed and scientific. I so much admired the permanent staff, their level of experience meant they were able to be so clear in this respect and at the same time so compassionate. For me it was always hard to concentrate, to keep my mind on a situation that was frequently also shocking, especially having come from my other work where I was training myself to be sensitive and empathic, to form a holistic view of the patient that put them in the centre of the picture.
But there was always a moment, a moment that I did not understand so well then but understand much more clearly now, when I would establish my mindfulness. This was always when it came to the solid, physical lifting-and-handling part of the job. My mind would firm up along with the body somehow. When this happened I found myself both present, robust and still able to reflect and relate. I found myself where I needed to be as the carer.
Then, looking on, it seemed to me that most of the patients needed, in contrast, to be guided away from reality into their inner world to find a refuge. I kept remembering a time during my years as a psychologist when a very close friend of mine ended up a patient in ICU. I went to see him every day. My friend was an artist and endowed with the most exceptional imagination. He was able to picture himself as a cartoon character, able to be squished one moment and pop back up the next. He was full of humour and seemed to have found a place where he was aware of his body as an image in his mind and at the same time beyond concern for his body. In his own way he was still in there fighting for his life, he could still follow the guidance of the nurses and do what he needed to do, but he kept a light touch on the whole affair. To me this looks like a good place for the patient to find themselves in.
Overall then, remembering ICU, I am reminded how life can demand such fluidity of mind from us all. One moment we can need to be solid and firm, the next as light as air. If we can master all this we will truly be free of attachment.
I offer this for your reflection
When it is difficult to withdraw from the world, at times of crisis or responsibility, we can be practising to develop our pāramīs, our spiritual qualities. In terms of our active life the ten pāramīs provide a full list of what we need. We can be asking ourselves, ‘what can I develop in this situation, or in that situation?’ We can also be finding out what our spiritual strengths and weaknesses are, working to our strengths and trying to improve in areas we are weaker. I will briefly reflect on these, personally and in turn, to highlight the way in which these qualities differ in the spiritual life from what we may usually understand them to be. There is also a lot to be learned from the order of these qualities, they naturally lead one into the next.
The Ten Pāramīs are:
We develop both kindness and equanimity together as we are able to more and more fully express our spirituality in our actions in the world on the one hand. We are able to accept the limits of what we are able to achieve on the other. We are able to do our best and at the same time accept whatever happens, happens.
The easy way to be happy, even during a time of crisis, can seem to be to stay positive and just push everything negative, inner or outer, out of our way. But times when there is a real problem can teach us a useful lesson that this doesn’t work so well – we can see that this is like pushing a heavy swing door out of our way and not walking on – it swings back right into our face! More inwardly, if we do not listen to the real alarm bells built into our bodies and minds they will keep ringing, more and more insistently to warn us of all the problems we are trying to ignore. In more usual circumstances, where the problems are less in-our-face, we can realise that the same dynamic is working in a more subtle way. We will just be prone to anxiety. We can even end up going to the psychologist to ‘work with this stuff’ and try to be even more positive, but we never find any long-lasting peace. Peace comes from acknowledging the down-side of life with a calm, accepting heart not by just trying to push it away.
In the worst case the positivist will build a wonderful world for themselves, and set themselves up for a rude awakening – for all this positive stuff, even when it is completely real, doesn’t last forever. The good news is that the down-side doesn’t last either and that it is at the fading of suffering that we find a fuller, lasting happiness. We just need to have the courage and strength to consciously face the down-side without becoming negative and we will find not only a new, more real, more stable kind of happiness we will also have a true refuge from the down-side of life, one that can acknowledge and deal with real problems.
When my mother was a kid she found herself feeling sorry for herself one day. It was a time when news of famine was first coming back to England from abroad. My mother saw pictures in the newspaper from India of starving children. She had never seen anything like it and naturally felt sorry for those children instead of herself. After this, whenever my Mum started feeling sorry for herself, she would remember those pictures, think of India, and say firmly to herself, ‘don’t be silly.’
In this way her compassion for those children in India was to support her for the rest of her life.
Perhaps I can write this in little thought-bites, in a way that fits the subject:
at times of crisis things can move very fast
we realise how much we operate out of habit
how difficult it is not to
how difficult it is when our underlying perceptions are challenged
our whole perception of who we are can start to break down
we need something stable to hang on to,
finding a sense of ourselves apart from the changing conditions
this can be something we do no matter what happens
keeping something conscious going
filling the gaps with the simple prayer
we must not think we ‘should not be attached’ but ask ourselves where to find a refuge
we must not think ‘suffering is our own fault’ but work with what we can change in ourselves
the heart response is most important
not just trying to be clever with something
but trying to find a perception that fits is often a matter of words
not making too much or too little
looking for balance between the extremes
and we must keep asking, what do we really need?
I offer this for your reflection
The diagrams below show how meditation changes the relationship between the mind, the body and the world. The development of calm (blue) and insight (yellow) is like a gradual centring of the mind first of all forming clear perceptions (mental images) of the world, secondly stepping back into the body.
The diagrams are also an introduction to my other artwork where the relationship between calm and insight is portrayed in a more fluid, creative way.
There was once a father who had high ambitions for his son and yet his son’s heart was taken by the working of wood and he wished to be a carpenter. The father could not accept his son’s passion, they argued and argued. Tragically for the father the son left home and did not return.
Many years later the father received a package by post. Inside was a small wooden box, exquisitely made. Inside the box was a curled wood-shaving, just that. There was no note. It was clear that this was a message to the father from the son. Certainly the craftsmanship of the box showed his father that his son had mastered the craft for which he had left home but what was the message of the shaving? The traditional interpretation is that the shaving was a way of honouring the craft in and of itself over and above the result gained. The shaving expresses this very beautifully, for sure, and I think more besides. These were the days when people were still looking for deep spiritual practice and truth through such crafts. Within a patient, spiritual mind there can be the precision of the task and the emerging result of the work, creativity that listens as it works. There is also the beauty of the task itself and yet furthermore there can be the bliss of the silent, spacious mind. To me the deeper message of the shaving is the beauty of that which is left behind, what we let go of as we work, both internally and externally, that opens this space. Thus the shaving is ultimately a symbol of this letting go and of the joy and the freedom of the open mind. The bliss of such letting go makes the things we let go of the most beautiful things in the world. We do not hang on to these things either, these signs of freedom, but can offer them to others like the son to his father.
The shaving and its presentation within the box is to me a statement that the beauty of letting go, of renunciation, can become the greatest prize and joy. For this is a renunciation that is not a negation of the world but is rather a growing greater than the world. This is the highest joy, of a freedom within the world, active and capable, creative within that world and also beyond the world.
This freedom was, I believe, the gift that the son would have wished for his father. It was offered in a way beyond words because this very offering of truth is itself beyond words. Let us hope that the father’s love for his son led him to treasure the gift and search deeply in his mind and heart for its deepest message.
Perhaps this gift can also be a message to every aspiring master of the wood that the ultimate value of the craft may be far higher, far deeper, far wider than it may have appeared to be in the beginning. I am not a carpenter but a mere contemplative. To me this story speaks of the joy and meaning of silence and space, of freedom and of resolution won by the craft of the thinker, there in the open, peaceful, creative mind and I offer you these words, these reflections as a gift with the love of a son for his father and let go. I won’t be trying to persuade you to take up carpentry. Its up to you.
I offer this for your reflection
Two years ago my heart was effected by a flu virus. I don't think I will ever forget lying in the ambulance all wired up to the heart monitor. The paramedic kept talking to me all the way, “Any pain?” “What day is it today?”
I knew the situation; I was at risk of a heart attack or a stroke, that was the reason for the continuous checking. I just kept looking at the skin of my bare chest with all the ECG stickers all over it and surprisingly I felt completely unconcerned. This was so clearly a result of the practice but it still really surprised me that my contemplation of the body had gone as deep as that. I really felt quite happy. I was remembering how a few days ago I had been feeling stressed over monastery administrative stuff and wondering if my practice was starting to weaken with all my responsibilities. I was reassured that underneath I was still alright. I still had my refuge when it really mattered.
I offer this for your reflection