My mother asked me the other day for the email address of an old friend of the family that we had been out of touch with for some time. Turns out that my Mum, bless her heart, is trying to contact everyone that she has some kind of unfinished business with just in case she dies. This would be a very common practice amongst those who believe in rebirth and hence that our karma with others could follow us into our next life – yet this can be a very important thing for all of us to do. It is by resolving, as best we can, whatever hangs over us from the past that we can be at peace in the face of death. We could also say that this is another way such a threat can take our lives in a good direction, motivating us to get things resolved and lighten our load.
Of course there will be things that are difficult to resolve. We could have regrets toward people who have died, for example, so we can only do our best – yet just our wholesome intention can be enough for us to find peace and let go.
Playing dead can be a great way of escaping attack, especially useful at a time of crisis where there can be danger everywhere. The problem is that playing dead leaves one rather vulnerable. I would like to propose that a possible solution could be that instead of playing dead one plays extinct. In this way one retains the harmlessness of being dead while remaining alive. If one considers the ideal in this respect then I believe one will play dinosaur. Such creatures are far from vulnerable and yet, being extinct, remain harmless, as harmless even as one dead and gone.
If this all seems a little strange then, to avoid embarrassment, one may need only to merely hint at playing dinosaur in order to at least unnerve the attacker. Placing the hand behind the back in the way illustrated in the picture below may serve as a ‘hinted stegosaurus’, for example.
Or a snake-like gesture of the arm, flowing gracefully upwards and forwards, can serve as a 'hinted brontosaurus'.
And if one cannot take this at all seriously then one will realise that making a joke is one way of coping when one finds oneself under attack and scared out of one’s wits.
I offer this for your reflection
One time my mother came to stay with me at Amaravati monastery in England. I had returned home from abroad because she was going blind and needed more support from me and my brother. It was early summer and the bluebells were out in the woods opposite the main gate. I took her over one afternoon in a wheelchair and left her to enjoy the scene with the little sight she had left. She remembers it as a precious day, and as her last memory of seeing bluebells. One of the monks at Amaravati called her the other day. She urged him to go to that piece of forest and enjoy the bluebells in her place as an act of remembrance. She asked him to pick one of the bluebells and put it on the monastery shrine as an act of veneration. She could practice sympathetic joy (muditā) for him as he did so, she said.
In doing so she enjoyed those bluebells again with a heart as pure as snow and renewed her hope in this time of crisis.
I offer this for your reflection
The Buddha tells us, quite plainly, that it is suffering to be separated from those we love. Indeed.
The Buddha also tells us that friendship with what is wholesome is the whole of the Holy Life.
If we put these two statements together then we see that the spiritual solution to our loneliness is to abide with that part of ourselves which is wholesome and to remember and to recollect the part of our loved ones that is the same. Looking deeper we can also realise how stable the wholesome aspects of our mind can be. When we meet a good friend after very many years we can still connect with their good side as though we have never been apart. So this solution is not as difficult as it might look.
Just as with boredom it is a matter of giving something to our loneliness rather than falling prey to the craving that is its unwholesome side.
Such love, a giving love and a love of giving, is the solution to our loneliness.
Practising like this I have spent months alone and silent and never felt lonely. Only the craving feels lonely.
I live in the monastery almost all the time. We have no TV and our access to internet is very limited. There are almost no other forms of entertainment in the monastery. I am very rarely bored, only by the administration work sometimes.
What I have learned from this life is that to look for stimulation is not a solution to boredom. The boredom will merely return as soon as the stimulation ceases. In fact stimulating the bored mind is like putting a dead fish in a washing machine – it only looks alive. The solution to boredom is to make an effort and pay attention to something. We can need some simple things to give our attention to so that this is not too much effort to sustain. This is bringing the fish back to life.
Just the same as with loneliness it is a matter of giving something to our boredom rather than falling prey to the wanting or craving that is its unwholesome side.
Looking deeper, a mind that is aware of itself is never a bored mind. This is like a fish, that becoming aware of the water that it is swimming in, is never a bored fish.
Before the corona crisis really got warmed up I was already thinking we had a bit of a crisis in the world – I was beginning to think that the smartphones were taking over our lives. I saw this as inducing a bit of a crisis of communication, paradoxically enough – so much virtual communication and nothing real, nobody seemed to me to be listening any more. My first solution was to keep writing calm and gentle, thoughtful things as best I could and uploading them. I was trying to catch the helpless browsers and get them to sit down and reflect. From the feedback I have had, so far so good. Now I hope you too are sitting down. The next idea is perhaps a little shocking, more radical, aimed at the heart rather than the head. For I propose, if possible, the breeding of billions of hamsters. I hope and claim that people will like stroking hamsters better than running their fingers up and down their phones. I dream of a world where hamsters thus bring us back to the real world through love and to a new loving world.
As long as hamsters cannot carry the dreaded virus I would still like to humbly put this forward as a direction for mankind. I am sure the hamsters will like it too. And reality, even at times of crisis, in fact especially at such times, is where we will find our refuge from the storm if we can make a gentle landing from our flights of fancy.
I offer this for your reflection
Then, of course, there are times during any good crisis when we will need to fight back. But how do we do this without hatred or ill-will? My answer is with a little snort. I will explain. I grew up in the days of Henry Cooper, who fought for the world heavyweight boxing title against the great Muhammed Ali. Although he lost he was a bit of a national hero, he was such a courageous, nice guy. I remember watching the fight, along with everybody else, when I was about five years old. Whenever the boxers landed a punch the gloves make a puffing sound as the air was expelled from the glove’s padding. Aged five I thought that the boxers were making these sounds as they punched. After the fight I danced around the room, shadow-boxing, trying to imitate Muhammed Ali, snorting through my nose as I landed every punch.
Of course later, when I found out my mistake, I began to find it funny to repeat my imitation and shadow-boxing became a good laugh. As I grew up I sensibly forgot about all this until I was living in South London. One day I was walking feeling rather irritated, trying to meditate on the breath to calm down as I went. There is a pub on the Old Kent Road called ‘The Henry Cooper’. Walking past the pub my mind went back to the fight and to my shadow-boxing. I snorted a little in remembrance and to my amazement my unruly mind-state was dispelled. It was a breakthrough.
I had been taking my meditation too seriously, I realised.
After so many years of meditation on the breath now the inner demons, when they come, can be clearly seen trying to fight their way into my attention, my concentration, at the end of my nose. This playful little snort with its fighting spirit can so often be enough to fight back. When I find myself in a corner I only need to snort a little to bring up a fighting spirit and keep it light and fluffy.
There is something so delicious too about a such universal response to the battles of life, inner or outer. It keeps the inner demons where they rightly belong, out there.
I offer this for your reflection
Sometimes, with a light heart, we can unexpectedly find something precious in something very ordinary. The other day I was playing with a small stick in my hand as though it were a cigarette. Something inside let go. In my youth there had always been something rather liberating about smoking – the act of rebellion spiced up with the nicotine rush. Then, of course, I discovered along with the rest of my generation how damaging smoking really was for the health and I quit. With a small stick, however, there was the chance to relive the liberating feeling without harm. Just feeling the familiar sensation of something between the correct two fingers, I could already feel a little lift, a sense of freedom. This was playing a little with the thrill of renunciation, harmlessly getting beyond caring. Such it was that I came to find comfort in a small stick, called Harold. Such it was that I invented the ‘patent corona comforter’ available to be forever found for free, in any forest or garden, by any cool contemplative.
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.
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.