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
This text was written as a summary of Ajahn Kalyano's teaching by George Petre, after having participated in multiple retreats with the Ajahn.
The detachment of mind from the senses and sense objects, including the subtle objects of thought and emotion, is the precondition for the realisation of things as they are, the reality at the heart of every being.
This requires a particular attitude when interacting with both the inner and the outer world. In the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, this approach is related to the development of attention-recollection in the present (sati), with particular emphasis on the development of this quality in relation to the body.
The development of attention in the present moment hinges on the capacity of letting go of craving for sense objects and of craving for being, understanding that the latter is merely another expression of the first. The more complete the letting go, the better established the presence. And the better established the presence, the easier the letting go.
This presence gradually realises itself as an openness of heart.
With the knowing now turned toward being, the seeing that the two were never really separate becomes possible. Knowledge of being supplants experience through the senses.
It is also here that the knowing finds independence – release and union at the same time – the emptiness of the mind in the pure emptiness of the heart.
Yet, this opening of being is at the same time an opening towards the world, towards experience, towards thought and emotion. It is this opening in the presence of the body that is the key for the development of dispassion – being with experience rather than lost in experience. All experience now has the same quality – the quality of knowing. At this point, the old identification with the body has been let go of completely.
It is through the contemplation of the body, contemplation of the suffering that is the result of craving and attachment to the body and the subsequent letting go of all obsessions with the body that this process is taken to completion. As the roots of the defilements – greed, hatred and delusion – are cut off the mind-heart discovers true stillness.
Here also, perhaps for the first time, there arises an experience of really clear seeing, clear knowing. Clear because there is no longer the distortion of the defilements. Clear also, because this knowing is direct, no longer mediated through the senses.
It is possible to say that through the practice of attention-recollection in the present, the faculty of knowing is transformed into higher knowing – the capacity to see things from the heart, the capacity to see things as they are and with this the capacity for spontaneous, unrehearsed compassion.
This is true wisdom – wisdom that is not dependent on thoughts or concepts.
Once upon a time I was a student of anatomy. I used to have weekly classes in the morgue examining preserved specimens of parts of human bodies. One week an arm, the next week half a head...However much I tried to be scientific about it this was always a confronting, emotionally challenging experience. After every session all my colleagues went to the pub. I didn't drink and went alone back to my room to meditate.
One of these days I spent a whole afternoon examining the hamstrings of a dead man's leg, playing with the different tissues to get the feel for their texture so that I could feel for the different structures under the skin of a live patient. This was my most intimate contact so far. I left the session feeling strange, disoriented. As I was walking along the street on my way home I felt my own legs underneath me and to my complete surprise a perfect image arose of the inside of one of my legs, like x-ray vision. I saw my hamstrings working bathed in the most sublime, cool light. For a moment I felt an enormous sense of lightness and freedom. I had never felt happier yet I knew not why.
That moment changed my life. A part of me, a part that has grown and grown, has been looking for that sense of freedom ever since.
I offer this for your reflection
Many years ago as a layman I was travelling in the south of Chile. One full moon night I had a very powerful, lucid dream where I was kneeling down, sick and covered in warts and my Dhamma teacher at that time, Ajahn Sumedho, appeared and cured me with a great blast of light. The following morning I was walking along with my Chilean companion. I had a wart on my hand that had been there almost two years. I had a habit of scratching it but as I began to do this, remembering the dream of the night before, it immediately came off.
I was completely stunned and stood there looking at my companion who began to smile. Before I could tell her about the dream she began to tell me how in the night she had taken some threads from my shirt and buried them in the ground, saying an ancient magic spell. She knew me and my scientific background and was pleased to be able to show me there may be more to life than I might have thought. But all I could think about was Ajahn Sumedho.
Many years later as a monk I was able to tell Ajahn Sumedho the story. He laughed out laud and said, jokingly,
"Yes Kalyano, at night I fly around the world curing people of their warts."
I could not seem to get him to take the story seriously but the fact was that the dream and the period that followed had felt like some kind of deep healing and had, in addition, opened up my whole view of the world. It was one of the reasons I had ordained with him as a monk, for the magic.
I offer this for your reflection
In so many ways, even as far as uploading consciousness and achieving 'virtual immortality', man seems to be hoping to be saved by the computer. I would say the opposite could be true. Ultimately man's survival in more ways than one relies not on the computer but on doing what the computer cannot do. Firstly this is because in that way we are not made redundant by computers. Secondly, much deeper than this, because the impermanent, conditioned mind is like a computer programmed for survival. I would say that it is our own inner computer that binds us to an impermanent world.
This can include binary feeling as data even though the inner computer does not feel. The mind and body become entangled through this encoding. Feeling, pleasant and unpleasant is the binary code of the body that locks our minds into associative spins between mind and matter.
By contrast freedom lies in the great mysteries of consciousness and beauty. These two should be the focus of our efforts to avoid becoming trapped in an automatic world of binary thought and feeling. Here is all the wild, natural magic of the mind that emerges from emptiness and returns to emptiness in its pure acts of creativity.
The mind that includes emptiness cannot be coded and drawn into the endless reactive stream of the conditioned mind. The mind can even become based in its perception of emptiness. This is freedom.
Also, as a footnote, I think that if we consider the nature of mind in a deep way, not just on a superficial level as merely thought, computer analogies to human consciousness start to look fundamentally flawed. On a deeper level of information we cannot divide physical and mental processes. In a computer the software does not have a formative effect on the hardware so these are easy to divide. By contrast in biology the information contained within living organisms has a formative role in the development and control of the body.
If we understand our minds to be like computers we are limiting their potential to form the very substance that carries the information.
I offer this for your reflection
When we have the conditions to dedicate ourselves to meditation and study, we can do well developing our practice. If, however, we cannot learn to protect our mindfulness our path will be a manic one of gain and loss. A healthier practice is to develop our mindfulness in good conditions and then seek to protect and maintain it through challenging situations. This, in addition to the solitary practise, is the second way to strengthen our minds.
As we develop our practise further, toward samādhi, more refined states can give us the impression of being somehow concrete and stable in and of themselves (as being an 'energy' or 'our true nature') but this is not the case. In this sense the brightness and space of samādhi can be deluding. These states are a manifestation of emptiness – not something but an absence of something. We can need to think like this, talk about our experience like this, to change our perception of the results of our practice, or we will be heading in the wrong direction, towards spiritual materialism and not toward freedom.
Ultimately all our states of mind, without exception, arise and are sustained by a perception. So it is wisdom, stable, liberating perception, that protects the mind.
When, over time, we discover the vulnerable nature of refined states, instead of looking to stabilise them with wisdom we can try to do so in other (dysfunctional) ways. Typically we can shut ourselves away and just end up worrying about the next time we have to go out! There are also many more subtle dysfunctional ways arising from a lack of understanding of the mind. For example we can find ourselves defending the brightness of the mind against the darkness of others. The brightness of our mind is effected by our own dark side but not directly by that of others. When we start to see the darkness of the impure mind, we can falsely see that we are directly effected by the impure thoughts of others, we can take this darkness to be poisoning us without the other person saying a word. The darkness of others' minds is not a threat, it cannot effect us directly but only if we share or are affected by the unwholesome perceptions that are at its source, not through some mysterious dark energy. All states of mind arise from perception. If we see the suffering of such darkness we will be moved to compassion. Compassion is not poison.
What we will also discover is that not all negative thoughts are dark. Some wise thoughts are negative but take the mind even brighter as it lets go of attachment. The distinction we have to make is between wholesome and unwholesome, skilful or unskilful rather than between positive or negative. Wholesome or skilful thoughts are that which lead to a more peaceful happy mind – the happiness of peace being the happiest happiness of all. A mind that is reliant on being positive to be happy is a mind that is relying on the world. If we have an inner happiness we can see both the positive and negative things of the world equally.
This distinction of wholesome or unwholesome will be made for us once we start to be able to see the brightness or darkness of the heart or 'citta' directly. There are very many surprises here for the practitioner discovering what is truly a spiritual path and what is not. It is important to realise that we then have a different value system. Sexual desire for example darkens the mind. It is not that we think that there is something wrong with sex but that we come to enjoy and value the bright mind more highly. Until we can see like this for ourselves (this is quite late on in the path) we are reliant on faith and the guidance of others further on in the path.
I offer this for your reflection
Yoga and ch’i kung and other associated body work or therapies are examples of bodily practices that were originally spiritual in nature and purpose. Both however have become materialised, or 'physicalised' in their move to the West. Because there was no cultural understanding of the phenomenon of samādhi – the phenomenon of chakras or of ch’i – the brightness within the body was taken to be some kind of energy rather than a manifestation of emptiness. This is a natural enough mistake to make when we associate physical exercise with the generation of energy of some kind. It is a mistake that will be reinforced over and over if the people coming to learn these skills are looking for energy.
This mistake can end up leading us in completely the wrong direction. It is not that we do not find energy through our practice, but that this is a phenomenon of mind rather than a physical energy. Instead of trying to find this emptiness and to keep the emptiness empty we try to create something. We do not see that the emptiness is filled by, obstructed by, our desire – even this desire to create energy. Or usually we do not see the emptiness at all but associate spiritual energy with more mundane feelings that are, after all, experienced in the body too.
The same mistake is thankfully true of dark, negative energy as well. Interestingly people can see that this is associated with a negative state of mind (perhaps what is obviously negative is clearer than that which is truly positive) but again it is 'physicalised' so that people become afraid of being effected by the negative thoughts of others. The darkness of others' minds is not a threat, it cannot effect us directly but only if we share the unwholesome ideas or perceptions that are at its source. Yet on this basis people are excluded from meditation retreats if they are not vegan or eat garlic and on it goes to the point where anyone with a problem could find themselves excluded until they can sort themselves out. So much for compassion. Where this leads us internally is no less scary. We can be led into a never-ending effort to purify ourselves of something that is not really there – through a deep confusion between the physical purity of diet or exercise and the purity of the mind.
People also run away from all this to seek spiritual seclusion, but this is supposed to be aimed at getting us away from our desires and calming the mind toward Nibbāna; it is not a way to get away from everything we don't like, away from bad old saṃsāra. This is just following our desire in the opposite direction. This is wrongly blaming the world for the suffering that comes ultimately from our own desire and craving.
Let us consider also the example of sexual, tantric practice. Here there can be a confusion between the rapture of orgasm which arises out of the body and the rapture of samādhi. It is tempting to say that this confusion has been exploited by gurus since time immemorial. These kinds of rapture are, however, of a completely different nature. The rapture of samādhi is an explosive opening, a feeling that opens the mind free of attachment and desire. But they are both rapturous so again an easy mistake to make and yet again a mistake that, this time so very obviously, takes us in a completely different direction. It is true also that the heart chakra is the most powerful of all, but this is not associated with our romantic feelings of love but with a higher kind of love, an unconditional love in which we let go of our attachment to one individual and love all beings the same – and it is the letting go of the first that gains us the second form of love.
Moreover, sexual exploitation is not the only kind of exploitation in quasi-spiritual circles. In modern consumer spirituality a lot of money can be made from making people's relatively ordinary experiences seem more special. In this way there is no need to do all the hard work of the spiritual life but just to do the nice exercises and then form a nice and spiritual view of ourselves. The reality is that nobody gets samādhi easily, but also that this experience is far more marvellous than anyone can imagine. So spiritual life above all is the one that requires the most dedication in order to break through, otherwise it will not be so special, yet people with real faith can be prepared to practice for life-times, through all kind of hardships, to finally get there. One tiny glimpse of samādhi sets a seed so deep that it is enough for someone never to look back. However, someone who has not experienced this should be careful to criticise lesser pleasures or they risk just entering into a dry idealism; so many monks and nuns do this and become gradually more and more miserable. The clever ones make do with a walk on the beach.
A further mistake of the same we can make is to think that highly spiritual beings have limitless physical energy or resources, they can even mistakenly think this themselves or that their selflessness can end up taking them beyond their physical limits. We should not be disappointed by our limits. If we had no such limit as spiritual practitioners would we not eventually find ourselves with an indestructible mind in a worn out body unable to escape? Doesn't sound good. The Buddha himself relinquished his old body when it wore out.
But lets not fall into seeing such considerations as negative. All of this kind of thinking is neither placing some kind of limit on our spiritual endeavour. Nor is such discrimination just a dry intellectual exercise. It is rather wrong understanding that limits us. Confining ourselves to an energy or bodily feeling is what is limiting us in time or space.
Perhaps we can need to recognise how our spiritual practise can become tainted by the desire for power or to be something special in the world. Or maybe our hope is for a physical healing beyond the limits of our minds. In contrast if we can humbly bow and let go then we can have found something real that we can come to realise is everlasting. Something within the world that is also beyond the world. We have found freedom and true spirituality, not just another kind of slavery in spiritual materialism and it will not be hard to let go of a lesser happiness for a far greater one.
I offer this for your reflection
When I was eighteen I took a gap year before going to University. I knew I would be studying psychology so I decided to get some work experience and got a job as a nursing assistant in a large hospital for people with mental handicaps. On my first day I was given a list of patients to help with their bath. I went to find the first one and helped him to wash himself as best I could. When I stepped out of the bathroom to take a towel I found that all the other patients on the list were standing naked outside the bathroom, all with their towels neatly folded over their arms and I realised how institutionalised life here really was.
My duties were simple and routine. Bathing, dressing, shaving, serving food and calling for a nurse if anything happened I couldn't handle. The job was like looking after big babies, having to try to see what they were asking for when they were upset. I had to put myself in their simple shoes and keep my eyes on just the basic necessities of life. I came to love them. I was amazed how content they could be with so little in life. The experience was an immensely earthing one and I began to realise just how simple life could be if you did not think about it too much. I could see the suffering of all my intellectual craving. Perhaps you can too if you have the same craving, reading this article in its deliberately simple style!
As for me, going on to college I was left with a nagging doubt about all the thinking. I wanted to try to help in what seemed like bigger ways and thought to use my brain, but in my vacations I would go straight back to simple nursing with a sense of relief.
As a monk, thankfully, I have rediscovered the simple life. Now, however, this simplicity covers even my thinking. Even though the deeper realities that emerge out of the contemplative life can be hard to describe, as an experience they are completely simple and clarifying of all our life experience.
I offer this for your reflection
The practice of celibacy, undertaken temporarily or for life as a monk or nun, is central to Buddhism. This practice is undertaken to help us to change our perception of the body, a change which is a necessary part of the process of true and complete liberation from suffering.
The Buddha understood the deepest root of our suffering as human beings as arising out of our attachment to a physical body which is inevitably prone to old age, sickness and death – a sensual perception of the body, our own or that of another person, causes us to hold on to the body as desirable and blinds us to its vulnerable state. This teaching is proven to the deep practitioner who is able, at least momentarily, to see differently. They will be able to let go of attachment to the body and enter into the bliss of samādhi, their first taste of liberation.
I offer this for your reflection