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
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
In my eyes so much of Western Buddhism amounts merely to ideas and techniques and lacks real heart compared to Buddhism in Asia. Western Buddhism is young, precocious and perhaps a little immature in this respect. At a time of crisis this can be particularly apparent and has been expressing itself in the monastery to some degree. Luckily, as the pandemic has been looming closer, things are changing in the monastery from a bit of a heady response – working out what to do, or how to think about the whole thing – to more of a heart response. The great-uncle of one of our community members is fighting for his life against the virus right now in Holland. This fact began to really bring things home to us. We will put a picture of him and his wife, also sick, up on our shrine and dedicate our practice to their welfare. This kind of response is all we have when there is nothing more that can be done or said, and it is very important for that very reason. In this way our regular routine of chanting opens up to hold and carry these events without us being changed. This helps us in turn to open up to these things, for them to really come home to us, without shaking our lives too much.
It is a nice phrase actually: to ‘bring something home’, meaning for us to realise the full reality of something. We can be welcoming these realities into our hearts, offering them a home of compassion, and growing in kindness and wisdom as a result. Then, ultimately, all our insights, all our samādhi will be a heart response, a radical opening of the heart.
I offer this for your reflection
Since this text was written, the great-uncle who was mentioned has passed away...
I think myself lucky to have been through what I might call the feeling revolution in England in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Before this it wasn’t very acceptable for men to show their emotions, especially at a time of crisis. This got turned around when women started looking for the new, sensitive man. Then it became fashionable for men to have emotions! We were helped along by the tragedy of Lady Diana’s death. What a milestone that was in the emotional evolution of the male sex! So now, at a time of crisis like this, we can have a good cry along with everybody else and feel a lot better. The ability to experience an unpleasant feeling rather than tighten up against it can actually be a sign of strength too, in my eyes we are no less men for showing emotion. It can be the case also, however, that people with a very strong spiritual nature will start having emotions different to the normal, cry for different reasons. Different perceptions lead to different emotions. So there should not be a socially imposed standard on emotion either. We have to understand that people see things differently. Still we may question our perceptions or those of others later but tissues always come first. Crying in response to a good, wholesome perception could be our spiritual definition of what it could mean to ‘have had a good cry’.
Just as there can be something deeply consoling about contact with nature there is something about silence as a response at a time of crisis. The kind of silence I mean is the minute of silence observed on memorial days to honour the dead. Such silence has tremendous power, gravitas. To me there is something very beautiful about such silence, a tremendous peace. I can want it to last forever. Yet more than this, much more to me, there is also something deep down that knows that this silence – only this silence – can actually last forever.
To me this is the great turning point. This is the truth; and seeing this truth – out of the darkness comes light. So, I do not look at this moment for a sign of hope, for a fresh beginning. I have my hope and my fresh beginning already in the silence. And this silence is right there seeing the truth also of the suffering, not looking somewhere else and as such has true love and compassion. To me this is also a love that at such a time is truly consoling to others, a love that is just, simply, ready with the tissues. To me such love is a response that has both wisdom and compassion; to me this is the love of the Buddha – love on the path to liberation.
This silence is a love that is not looking for answers or for hope when there is none. What hope is there for a body that is dying? There is none. There is hope only for the spirit and only for the spirit that can let go of the body, not for the spirit that holds on with hope. So this is a love that does not let us down at the crucial moment, the time of real crisis. We have found a refuge for ourselves and can be a refuge to others.
I can also think that, if there was nothing more that could be done for me, I would be happy to die alone in such silence in order to be able to connect with this refuge, to go with it. To give someone a single room in their last days, to allow for such solitude, is in fact the guideline given to the National Health Service in England for the care of a dying Buddhist by the Buddhist Hospice Trust. So please, no chanting, no serenades or lullabies when my time comes, thanks anyway. Silence is golden.
And, in the meantime, many of us are living in isolation, in the solitude of the corona lock down. If we can keep our spirits up we have the perfect opportunity to meditate and prepare ourselves to meet such a solitary death, training ourselves to stay with the silence, to see that the body is not us and let it go. Then we will not only have courage to face the future, we can die any time we like. In fact we can be dying all the time into that glorious silence. We can be dying to ourselves every day, as we live and love. This is letting go.
I offer this for your reflection
In the monastery we have prepared a special box. It contains everything we have for use in case one of the community members gets the virus. So we have everything together in advance to help us nurse someone in isolation (gloves, hand sanitiser, aprons, masks etc.). We also have a nursing procedure written out to help us to look after the patient without spreading the virus. We are doing our best practically and preparing ourselves mentally to accept whatever happens. Today we also placed a small, brightly coloured, yellow box – which will remain empty – within the larger box. The idea is that this little yellow box is a symbol. It is there to remind us that if we look on with wisdom (yellow is the colour of wisdom in all my art work) this will keep a little bit of the heart and mind empty and safe in the midst of the crisis. As we look on with wisdom this creates emptiness in the mind – there is a little detachment, no grasping within the mind. The source of true emptiness, of freedom, lies right there at whatever we are giving our attention to, not in some other place. We find a refuge not by running away but by facing the truth of the situation. Seeing the truth the mind becomes the truth, everlasting, ineffable.
So this little box-within-the-box is a symbol of the true transcendent. It is there to help us to stay light, to keep a light touch, while still fully acknowledging the seriousness of the situation and giving our full attention to dealing with it. This is very different from keeping a little bit of the mind empty, staying a little bit spaced out; which is the old hippy way, perhaps, not the way of mindfulness, of wisdom and compassion.
We would like to wish you all the inner joy of the little yellow box.
Or perhaps we think that if we are really compassionate we should be depressed and anxious about the whole thing? Wouldn’t be very good for the immune system would it? Or be positive and think we will not get it, or that we will be alright if we do, that could make us careless, couldn’t it? No, I think the right way is neither extreme, it is the calm, caring, mindful middle-way of the little yellow box.
I offer this for your reflection