Why is it that we feel so good when we go out into nature? There is more to nature than relaxation, than fresh air and exercise, more even than the beauty, isn’t there? We feel somehow at home, don’t we? How so? This is because our bodies are part of nature too. We realise this if we see that the more we are aware of the body the more we feel at one with nature. If we meditate, watching the breath coming in and out, it can seem to be like the breeze and suddenly we can feel part of something bigger. We can also discover that when we do this that our worries, even at a time of crisis, begin to fade. This is the case even when it is our bodies or our health that we may be anxious about with this virus around – in fact it is especially the case at such a time. Somewhere very deep down we can intuitively be accepting our situation as human beings, our place and finding an inner peace.
Then, returning home, if we can stay with the body, this peace will remain with us. We will feel calm and centred and prepared for whatever may come.
Maybe deep down you knew all this already, that’s why you headed for the forest whenever you could. But did you realise the importance of being aware of the body in finding the peace you were looking for? And did you realise how deep it could go?
When the mind is ready, letting go happens very easily, all on its own:
My life is light,
Waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
T. S. Eliot
Before ordaining as a monk, 22 years ago, I worked in hospitals for many years. From my point of view I think that it is important to point out that at the time of the Buddha there was probably nothing people could do in the face of a pandemic. They just had to let go. In modern times this is not the case. So we can need to bear this in mind when we study or listen to the Teaching.
Modern science can show us a way of kindness, mettā, in the face of this crisis. And, if we have wisdom in the heart, we can take care of our bodies and those of others without any problem. We can do this out of compassion and not out of desire or attachment. We will be able to do so with a light touch and remain free.
We will need to keep the mind calm, for this we can use our accustomed meditation practice. We can chant Buddho as we wash our hands. As we take such care, we can learn from the process, deepen our wisdom. Remember, liberation does not come from meditation alone but from also seeing the realities of the body with a peaceful mind.
I offer this for your reflection
In terms of the future, within the uncertainty of it all, let us prepare for the worst
and pray for the best…
Perhaps in the world
mankind will stop and look…
and find a better way to live...
perhaps this will be our way to honour the dead…
And perhaps in the heart
we will see the truth...
and let go…
Sometimes we can feel pretty helpless. One teaching that has really helped me at such times came from Ajahn Karuniko, my teacher many years ago. He said,
‘You don’t have to save the world to feel happy, just a simple act of kindness will do.’
I have found this to be so true. We can feel helpless to do anything against the corona virus but just simply sharing something we have with someone else can help us feel a lot better. Leaving a loaf of bread outside an elderly person’s door, ringing the bell and disappearing, perhaps. This can be enough. The anonymity of such an offering can be so delicious too. We are not bothering the person, there are no strings and we are not looking for anything in return.
The further significance of such an act is that is takes us beyond the survival instincts that can kick in very strongly at times of crisis. And there can be so much suffering in these feelings. Again we can think we can have to make some huge selfless gesture to overcome such strong drives but actually just sharing one small thing can be enough. In Thailand poor people offer a little ball of sticky rice every day to the monastery, for the monks and nuns and anyone else who is hungry, to keep such wolves at bay.
One of the skills we can develop as a meditator is to be able to pick things up, practice with them and put them down again. It can be very useful to use external prompts to help us to do this. I am sure people will remember the stories of the miners stuck down the mine in Chile or the kids stuck in the cave in Thailand. Both of these were brought to my attention and I made it a practice every day to chant and spread mettā to the people underground and their families. Someone gave me photos from the newspaper and I put them up on my shrine for my afternoon meditation. Then I would take them down until the following day. In this way I managed to pick up these events and use the pictures to focus my mind. Then I could put the whole thing down and not carry it with me the whole day.
It was actually a patient on one evening shift in the hospital, many years ago when I was a student, who taught me the importance of this skill in a way I never forgot. I said to him with great enthusiasm, “if there is anything at all I can do for you this shift please let me know.”
Actually there was very little I could do and he knew it. He said very firmly, “what you can do for me is to go out tonight and have a really great time.”
At times when we feel sad, we can take this sadness and suffering away from the proliferating mind that will always drag us down. We can instead consciously practice a ‘soft melancholy’. This is a favourite practice of one of my best monk friends, an Italian. We think thoughts that have this quality to them, such as “this whole affair is such a shame,” with a big soft sigh. Or try an accepting thought in the same spirit, “it’s the way it is.”
Melancholy can be a beautiful form of sadness, steady and clear. The softness is an antidote to the righteous anger we can feel over finding ourselves in a difficult situation, especially one that is not of our making.
We can also stroke our sadness with the breath to make it soft and steady. Picking it up on the in-breath, raising it up to a finer state. Then letting go and calming the mind on the out-breath.
In these ways we may replace a sadness full of suffering with a humble state of mind that has acceptance and compassion. Paradoxically, perhaps, we can then be happy to feel sad for the sake of all sentient beings – but not too sad.
Now I have a health reason with the virus for keeping clean and I would have to admit – as a scruffy, leftist Englishman – that I actually appreciate feeling cleaner. I had been someone to point at the weird associations between cleanliness and right-wing attitudes, showed up in a few psychology experiments, and to struggle living with people from cleaner cultures than my own. Again it has taken a crisis for me to find a more wholesome perception and, in true Buddhist fashion, to turn this around.
Clean, it seems, can feel rather refined in a good way, raising up the mind.
I had noticed already the steadying effect on the mind of going through some of my more refined monk’s duties, washing the alms-bowl, for example. Now, through the regular hand-washing and domestic cleaning I can also find myself thinking of the soldier cleaning his boots before the battle, preparing for the worst, hoping for the best.
My Mum tells me the whole family used to join in preparing her father for his military parades in the ‘Home Guard’ during the Second World War. She, aged only six years old, used to polish his boots and the brass buttons on his coat. They were all very proud of him. At night they would all snuggle under his big thick coat to keep warm. This is like the use of the monks robe which is also worn proudly one moment and used as a bed-sheet the next. At times of crisis resourcefulness is often an antidote to pride or attachment. We can be proud and strong, dignified, without taking on the vulnerability of conceit. And these can become qualities of the community of which we are a part, not just a personal thing. It can help us all keep our spirits up in a time of crisis.
The Buddha referred to the sights of sickness and death as two ‘Heavenly Messengers’. Why on earth would heaven send us such signs as these? Why not send beautiful angels to inspire and guide us? The answer is to help us to let go. Letting go of the body is not so easy. A friend of mine who is a doctor in an intensive care department once told me a joke: there was a man hanging on to the edge of the cliff by his fingers, about to fall, and he called out in desperation,
“Is there anybody up there!?”
Then God appeared from behind a cloud and said to the man,
“Do not be afraid! Let go and I will catch you!”
There was a pause and the man replied,
“Is there anybody else up there!?”
That’s how difficult it can be to let go. This is why we need such messages as the sight of sickness or death to motivate us while we are still able to practice Dhamma. If we can face these messages head on and learn how to let go we find heavenly bliss and security in the open, empty mind. All we need to do is to keep the mind calm and peaceful through meditation and keep looking and looking, and the process of letting go will happen, gradually, all on its own.
The situation right now can be quite scary. All of a sudden we have something dangerous in our midst that we cannot even see. We can have to change our perception of the world from a safe place into one where we must take care. Let me tell a nice friendly story that will not add to that fear but perhaps help us to see what we are up against, trying to change our perceptions from the norm. The nature of the story fits in many ways what we are facing.
My mother likes to tell the story of a lady, blind from birth, who visited her primary school many years ago. She came to tell the kids about her life as a blind person and brought her guide dog. The kids were fascinated. First of all they were surprised that she was so smiling and happy, surely it must be terrible to be blind? Or, more generally, surely people who are sick must look or feel sick?
The blind lady gave out certificates to the kids at the end of the little course. She held them out. Still the kids had to be reminded that they had to take these from her because she could not see them. They had to overcome their usual manners to act appropriately.
These stories illustrate so well just how difficult it is to form a new perception of something we have never encountered before and then act accordingly. How we have our preconceptions to overcome first of all, then our habits. It’s not so easy.
It is also the case that people if they are sick or disabled have to rely on the help of others. This is also not straightforward, the helpers can have their own feelings: The blind lady’s guide dog was very well trained. It could take her everywhere she needed to go in the local town. Yet whenever she had to take the dog to the vet, she knew she would have to ask someone else to go with her because the dog would always take her the wrong way.
I offer this for your reflection