Looking around, I can think that a lot of people practising yoga are first of all out to stay healthy. I don't see anything wrong with this, as far as it goes. This I see as simply benevolence and I can have a lot of muditā (sympathetic joy) for the health and well-being of Yoga practitioners. It can be a shame, although, to not take the practice a bit deeper and add the meditation to it – where you can be as benevolent to your minds as you are already being to your bodies. It is also the case that problems can arise if we attach to being healthy – we are simply very unhappy when we get sick. The wisdom of the Buddha's teaching, brought alive through meditation, can help us to prevent this attachment without limiting our enjoyment in the moment.
So let us consider how Yoga fits with Buddhist practice philosophy. Yoga was already a highly developed science in the Vedantic tradition at the time of the Buddha. As I understand, the Buddha incorporated the meditation practices of the yogis into his own practice and teaching. Within Buddhism we can see the physical practices of Yoga as a preparation for the meditation and as representing an overall discipline of benevolence in relation to the body, the body being the first,mfundamental, foundation of mindfulness.
So the Buddha is encouraging us to meditate and explore our bodies with a calm, benevolent and accepting mind. In doing so, we discover that there are many ways in which the body and mind are woven together, so we find this also yields methods to gain emotional and psychological benefits. In particular there is the awareness of the breathing cycle. Here, on the simplest level, there is the possibility of a physical means for breaking cycles of stress. Stress tends to push the respiratory process into chronic overdrive. We can learn to arrest these patterns and reset our body's alarm systems. Combined with stretching we can also release the chronic muscle tension associated with stress. Furthermore we can greatly enhance our awarenessof our bodies, particularly in relation to posture. We can avoid the physical problems associated with poor posture and introduce a positive poise and grace to our lives that can take our hearts and minds in a similarly upright direction. Mindfulness of the body, if it thus becomes continuous, provides the ideal basis for the skill of mindfulness as a way of life – there is a lot of evidence for the value of this in preventing mental problems such as anxiety and depression.
We can discover that our attitude towards our own body is formative of so much or our mental and emotional life, of our view of ourselves and others. Not only is a healthy body in many ways a healthy mind, but a healthy view of the body is also in many ways a healthy mind. In this respect the Buddha also teaches us to recognise and then both accept and see beyond the limitations of the body in a way that these limitations need not dampen a positive attitude to life. It can be important to realise that the sickness of the body is not necessarily a source of suffering in life if we have the right attitude, one formed by the correct view of the body and our relationship to it.
On the deeper and more subtle level, through meditation we can learn to deeply energise the body and mind. This is associated with the deeper benefits of long-term meditation practice – the possibility of the peaceful and blissful mind states of samādhi, which come with heightened awareness of the body and breath together. These can transform our lives –we will never be the same again. If you have not experienced such things yourself it is well worth meeting people who have experienced them, to learn to know these people: they are likely to be the happiest people you have ever met. Yet these states of mind are only experienced by those whose Yoga represents a broad and dedicated spiritual path, including the keeping of moral precepts – only then can our mindfulness be clear enough to go this deep. Being part of a spiritual community is of enormous help in establishing and maintaining this kind of dedication. If we have discussed so far principally the place of Yoga in Buddhist practice, this is perhaps the most important place for Buddhism within the practise of Yoga.
I offer this for your reflection
When I became an anagārika I had taken a sabbatical from my research PhD in psychology at Southampton University to spend a year at Chithurst monastery. All my work colleagues thought I was crazy, my career was really taking off. I had spent seven years training first as a psychologist and then added on physiotherapy with the aim of doing research in the area of neurological rehabilitation.
Yet, all along my personal agenda, as a practising Buddhist, was to develop my contemplation of body and mind. I was not really sure what to expect from monastic life but for the first few weeks it was just good to give my brain a rest and do the simple work of cooking and driving and so on.
Then one night, out of the blue, I had an extremely lucid dream which was to change the course of my life. I dreamt that I was rushing around the wards at the hospital, as I had been for so many years – but instead of patients in the beds there were just organs. In one bed a liver, in another lungs, in another a pile of intestines. I had no idea what to do. The situation seemed completely hopeless.
I just kept running around saying to myself,
“What am I going to do, what am I going to do?”
When I woke up I sat up in bed and my first thought was,
“Oh no, all that work!”
I realised that my hospital career was at an end, and here I am still in a monastery twenty-five years later with no thoughts of going back. Looking back I can think that perhaps the taste of freedom, of letting go, I had experienced a few years before after a trip to the morgue had gone deeper than I had thought.
How would it be if someone gave you a big bag of bones and told you that your job would be to carry them around for your whole life? What about if, on top of that, you had to be very careful not to break one. This does not make life in the body sound too good does it? Actually having a body, if you really pay attention, is at times a very humbling thing to have. The innocent honesty of children in relation to the body can be a lovely light reminder also of how embarrassing the body can be.
And yet looking after the body with mindfulness can be just like looking after another person’s body – except that we can directly feel what is happening.
In developing such mindfulness it can be enormously valuable to nurse others. When we look after another person’s body the absence of direct feeling can show us the bodily predicament very clearly and make caring for another a deeply contemplative experience. We can reflect on what it is like to have a body without the feeling element that tends to affect the mind so much one way or the other. We get a very neutral sense of the body as distinct from feeling. This can really help the mind to calm down over the bodily experience yet, of course, we are concerned for the feelings of the other person at the same time. We are concerned for feeling but not directly effected by it.
This can also mirror the ideal in terms of our relationship to our own bodies, training us to care in a calm and peaceful way.
Also, from such a calm perspective, we can find that looking after another person and looking after their body can be two very different experiences that we shift between. This helps us to see the mind and the body as two different things although they are dependent on each other. This deepens our sense of a healthy, caring detachment where we can look after ourselves or others with compassion but without suffering.
Dreams are thought and feeling generating images in the absence of sense input. Normally you have the present moment mind watching the past/future stream of consciousness. This is action being informed of past result. In dreams there is no present moment mind, just this stream moving from past to future.
There is no action, only result.
In order to yield insight the mind has to get beyond thought. This can be purely through the meditation process or we can also use other skilful means to train our minds towards this goal. Two ways of taking the mind toward silence are through contemplative poetry or art. To appreciate certain poetry one has to read or listen quietly, in a way that does not analyse the words but allows the mind to form a picture. Art of a more abstract nature is similar – we look with an attention that is not too tight nor too loose. A mind that is relaxed and open, yet attentive, allowing an impression to form.
This ability to allow a picture to form in the mind based upon sense impressions is part of the insight process. There is also a degree of sense or sensual restraint, a composure of the senses, that does not get into detail, grasping or fondling or criticising. It is a way we can begin to open the mind. This is a refined aesthetics rather than a coarse level of appreciation. In my opinion, however, such refined aesthetics can get us stuck. It is looking for the best of both worlds – the sublime form and the space – not realising the greater pleasure and purity in the completely open and free mind and heart, which is at one with space.
Our next step in this direction is to recognise through mindfulness that beauty is not just in the object, it is literally in the heart and eye of the beholder (mindfulness is therefore also a natural creator of art or poetry). In fact the appreciation of the mind itself can give a stronger impression than the object. In this way we find a source of enjoyment at least semi-independent of the sense world. There is a kind of refined sensuality to do with light and space where the line begins to blur between the light of the world and the brightness of the mind, for example. This becomes like heaven. If we can see heaven on earth in this way, it is like the gradual path where the Buddha teaches us to see the advantages of the refined heavenly realms as a way to let go of coarser, worldly sense pleasures.
This lightness of touch prepares us for the experience of entering samādhi through contemplating the suffering of the world. Here the experience of the emergence of the mind itself overwhelms us as we further let go of our attachment. This is a very different kind of pleasure, the bliss of the mind opening rather than sensually grasping or fondling.
I offer this for your reflection.
It was February, 2012. It had been a cold winter that year to be on retreat. I had been meditating a lot and exercising as well to keep myself going. Then one day I heard that there was a funeral approaching in the monastery and the body had arrived and was laid to rest in the temple. As was my usual practice I went to see and to practice mettā meditation for the deceased. When I arrived I realized that I had met the man a few times. He was well known as an exercise fanatic, there were pictures of him in local newspapers on display were he was doing various extreme things for charity and so on.
There had been, I had heard, some strange events since his death. Apparently the Buddha figure in his home where his body had previously been had mysteriously fallen from the shrine and broken. The same had then happened in the temple. I also knew that he had had a slow and difficult passing with some awful neurological condition. My mind came to wonder whether this man had lost faith through all that and then found some way to show it after he had died.
I returned to my hut in the forest to continue practising and for a moment felt despondent. I thought of all the exercise I was doing and of the dead man and found myself thinking, with a big sigh, “Oh, what’s the use.” After all the meditation and contemplation of the body and death I had been engaged in over the last months, something in me immediately found that thought funny, but as soon as I smiled at myself a massive wave of bliss took over my mind completely. My body was filled with light and an unbelievable rapture. This ecstatic feeling lasted a few minutes, I think, I am not sure and then I had a very clear vision of my teacher, Ajahn Anan, smiling very broadly. Then I surprised myself with another thought, “I wonder if that means he feels like that all the time.”
Two years later I was in Thailand and finally had the chance to ask Ajahn Anan about this experience. I wanted to know if he really did feel like that all the time. He said yes. I was and am still completely amazed by that. He then leant forward and with an extremely penetrating look in his eyes he said,
“Kalyano, that’s the highest.” From that time to this I have kept returning my mind to that. This is a difficult practice, I need all the encouragement I can get.
March 20, 2014
This teaching was originally offered during the inauguration ceremony of The Hope Cathedral in Fredrikstad, Norway.
I am a forest monk living a very simple meditative life in the forest in Norway. This life very much deepens my relationship to nature. In Buddhism we develop our awareness through meditation and allow nature to teach us. Many Norwegians have said to me that their time in nature is almost a spiritual experience. I don’t know what they mean with ‘almost’ – through deep contact with nature we develop spiritual qualities in the mind. Ultimately, if it goes deep enough, this can lead us to spiritual enlightenment, where our mind enters into a very stable, natural state. For this reason Buddhism is full of practices to help us connect more with nature and develop these spiritual qualities to the full. In nature, as maybe we all know, the mind can become very calm, peaceful, humble and grateful for all that nature gives us. We can naturally develop love and respect and feel inspired to help nature. We become wise too, seeing our real place and role in the world.
To me this is a spiritual way forward for mankind that also, naturally and without pressure, leads us to behave responsibly with respect to the environment.
I offer this for your reflection
Words by Ajahn Kalyāno
Paintings by Helle Johannessen
Hearing winter call
Golden leaves fall
Into a heaven of the heart
A heaven not apart
Here on the ground
In heaven and above
In an above beyond words
Where sky is made of birds
And birds are made of sky
Here above a heaven
Where the heart shall learn to fly
This creation is also available as a PDF.
(for the advanced, happy Dhamma practitioner)
Introduction – Buddhist body-mind philosophy
Let us look for a calm space and try a few perceptual experiments around this situation with the virus to see if we can find something that can help us see it all in a skilful way. Given the gravity of the situation, at the outset it may seem a bit strange or even crazy to even consider thinking as a way of finding a refuge and protecting ourselves from the virus which is so real and so scary. It could seem like claiming we could think away a bus bearing down on us or a storm raging above. It could seem mad to think we can escape without taking any action. Surely it is all about washing our hands? Yes, it is certainly agreed that it would be mad not to do that. Buddhism does not advocate such passivity as ignoring those kind of things, but instead it encourages us to be acting in a wise way on every level – body and mind.
In this article we will be assuming that we are already doing whatever can be done in terms of the body, and will be considering only the mind here.
We will begin with an outline of Buddhist philosophy related to finding a mental and ultimately spiritual refuge within body and mind, then go on to apply this to the current situation with the coronavirus. Note that we are not looking for a refuge just in the mind but within a mind that is aware of the body, its realities and its needs. So all the way along this is a path that has both wisdom and compassion. It is also one that is aimed at the highest goal of the Buddha’s teaching, of liberation, of spiritual enlightenment.
The Buddha teaches us to protect our minds by seeing, realising that we are not our bodies and letting go of our attachment, our identification with our bodies. The mind then realises a state of detachment from the body which it sees and experiences as not-self. This is not to deny that there is, of course, a connection between body and mind on the objective level (we will be underlining the importance of seeing this later in this article). The Buddha’s view is not a dualistic, Cartesian view. What the Buddha is pointing to is that within our subjective experience of ourselves, in the calm mind, the experiences of body and mind can be separated. We can hence find ourselves an inner refuge from the ups and downs of the body. This is achieved in one way by withdrawing the mind from the senses, entering samādhi, and then continuously letting go of the body within this state. In this way we discover a mind that remains aware of but detached from the body, without the need to withdraw. We find a true refuge, one within the world not separate from it and therefore a refuge in which we can still function. This is the path of meditation taken all the way and integrated into our lives.
We can use wise reflection as well as meditation to calm the mind towards such samādhi. Through wise reflection we can gain a clear objective view of a situation, like a scientist or doctor, and the distance of seeing something in an impersonal way. And yet impersonal does not mean uncaring. This view pays off both in our efforts to survive and in our efforts to transcend. In the truly wise mind these two are not separate or opposed to each other – our ability to operate externally relying in turn on an inner surrender or acceptance.
Such contemplation is an art. Depending how we reflect, the process can either be scary, we feel out of control; or we detach from the world, looking on from outside. So it is very important we look in the right way. Our objective view needs to be brought in to a clear, calm subjective experience or perception in the present in order to form a refuge. This is the purpose of a phenomenological philosophy such as the Buddha’s teaching, to grasp a complex system in a way that we can understand it without abstract thought, forming a picture or perception rather than a concept. In this way we can remain with our experience and not get lost in thought. We can empty the mind in the face of phenomena (not merely through withdrawal) and we find a refuge stable in all circumstances. We can remain calm and clear.
Reflecting on the pandemic
So let us take these principles and try to apply them to the case of a life-threatening virus entering in to our world, looking for perceptions of this situation that may help us.
It is interesting, first of all in terms of the situation as a whole, that when we talk about people who are researching or dealing with the virus, we always use the word ‘they’ rather than ‘we’. This distances us from the whole situation. We are not taking responsibility and doing what we can but turning to the experts or the government. This is unhealthy. If we say or think ‘we are fighting the virus’ this has a completely different feel. We can even be doing our own research in our own way on how best to deal with the situation and share this with others. Then we are on board with the situation, grateful for others’ help and slow to be angry or demanding with ‘them’.
It can also be valuable to always refer to the body as ‘the body’ rather than as ‘me’. To relate in impersonal language gives us already a healthy sense of distance. We can take the body for a walk, wash the body, feed the body to try to stay healthy. This can be just like we take the favourite pet dog for a walk, shampoo the dog, feed the dog. This is fun, which is very important to keep the mind light.
Then we can reflect on how we see or think of this thing called ‘a virus’, noting that viruses are invisible to the naked eye or even the microscope. This is one reason a virus is so scary. (Or this is also reason why we can forget and/or ignore the situation.) Hence we will have to have the courage to imagine the virus instead. Another reason the virus is so scary is, of course, because it is making a lot of bodies go wrong very quickly at the same time. But as we cope with our own personal situation, we need to focus in on our own body and not make our own personal problem bigger just because it is part of a larger problem in the world.
Entering in to this personal sphere we need to then not let this mean that we take the situation personally in an unhealthy way but look to see what is happening instead as part of the impersonal operation of nature. To consider that the virus is not a living thing can perhaps be our first step towards an impersonal view, a step which will make us less likely feel personally attacked or victimised. It is not that we have an aggressive living foe. The self-reproduction of the virus looks alive and can make us feel like it is a living being, but is the manufacture of body fluids, as a comparison, really life?
This opens for the philosophical question: What is life then? Perhaps growing something a little more lasting, like hair or bones? Where is the line here between the alive and inert parts of the body? When we start looking it’s not so clear. I would suggest information or meaning integrated into a physical system is really life, not merely growth or new material or information that cannot be integrated – that is destructive to the organism and that has no independent life of its own.
So life, in my view (and I would say also in the Buddha’s view), is more to do with this aspect of mind, (lets try calling it the ‘biological mind’), than the body. Material can be consistent with the meaning, codes or blueprints of the organism, or inconsistent. To reproduce the virus is not what the body means to do. The virus is not part of the information of the body or mind, but code from outside. It is particularly hard for us, perhaps, to see how genetic coding can enter so far into a system, that we see subjectively as an integrated whole and so much as part of our identity – our genes. The virus is entering into the body’s chemistry, beyond the influence of our mind. It is taking control, not through a mere chemical reaction but a process involving a passage of information, something that we normally associate with the mind.
We can also have underestimated the degree to which the proliferating mind is caught up with physical systems – this aspect of the ‘biological’ mind or computer is in fact like the servant of the body, as neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio so clearly argue. The mix between chemistry and information is then very dangerous, it is like the ultimate mix between mind and matter bringing wild local code into a wider informational system. In this way we see a virus as so invasive into what we see ourselves as being part of; we have to step back a long way to escape it, seeing it as not-self. Yet this can be to our advantage in Dhamma.
This can be a disturbing mix up of our two subjective worlds, mental and physical. This can be scary if we identify with the body or with the automatic, computer-like ‘biological mind’ – if we cannot also see the difference between the biological mind, the automatic mind and our subjective consciousness in the present moment. If we are a meditator this is exactly the difference we are training ourselves to see. As we chant ‘Buddho, Buddho’ inside, we can see the stream of our present moment thought, simply and clearly, as separate from the noise of the automatic proliferating mind. We considered earlier that body and mind are not separate in the objective, material world but only within our subjective experience. Again we do not, we need not, claim that our present moment consciousness is objectively somehow independent of the brain, or the biological mind dependent thereon. We need only be able to divide the mind that is influenced by the body from the aspect of the subjective mind that is potentially not influenced, stable while conscious.
Finding a clear perception
Thus we can regain our clarity in two ways. Firstly if we see that the virus is just a chemical getting into the manufacturing part of our body chemistry, and being reproduced by our body and spread around by our body. This is a very different perception from that of assuming that something alive aggressively takes us over for its own advantage. It is our body that is taking up this material without recognising it for what it is. It is our body that is having a problem handling this thing. Only the cells of the immune system can recognise that it is foreign. Only these cells can interact in a communicative way with the viral cells. What this all comes to is that if we do not see information and communication as part of chemistry it will seem as though the virus is somehow alive and taking us over, rather than that this is just a molecule that messes up the chemistry and hence the biological functioning of the body. If we expand our view of chemistry then we have an impersonal view of the disease rather than a personal one. If we see our bodies as this kind of impersonal thing this is not an invasion. We will not lose our sense of control. We will realise that this was a process over which the mind never had any control. Practically speaking our way forward is also clear. What we need to do is to try to find a way into the chemistry, where we can find some control with a clear detached mind, in order to help the body.
Hospitals and health care workers are doing a marvellous job in this virus crisis and we are truly grateful for that. Without detracting in any way from their competence or caring, in this thought exercise we can try thinking of our hospitals as a loving laboratory in which we are doing the work and investigation necessary for survival. If we get the perception ‘laboratory’ right then ultimately we can, at the same time, realise how uncertain life is and be also motivated to get out of the life’s great laboratory. This will not be scary if we see the body at that moment as ultimately just a bunch of chemistry and biology; if we are identifying with this body then we are under threat and will be afraid.
Similarly our homes we can see more like a greenhouse where we control the environment for the body to thrive as best we can, yet these homes can become a prison. Instead of looking only to create or hold on to something stable, we can be motivated also on the other part of the search which is to be looking for that which is stable already – the peaceful, empty mind or ‘spirit’.
If we can let go, these perceptions, ‘laboratory’ or ‘greenhouse’ can become not negative but liberating, freeing us from being tied to an uncertain world.
The second way we can find clarity is by drawing a parallel between chemical viruses and viruses of the biological mind. The body itself we can see like its own laboratory. From the standpoint of the peaceful mind we can dread the moments where we by necessity get dragged back from the security of the spirit into the uncertainty of this laboratory, its chemistry or its computer system that is our biological, conditioned mind. The biological definition of a virus is, ‘an infective agent able to multiply only within the living cells of a host.’ The computer definition is ‘a piece of code which is capable of copying itself and corrupting the system’. This is the same as the biological definition, just that it is in informational terms. This is the fundamental way that the virus is operating, changing or hijacking chemistry, through information. We can begin to see even the facts of the proliferating mind as part of this same wider system – this biological mind and nature as a necessary unity, then the whole system is under threat of being exposed.
Towards the ultimate
If we are at the stage of looking at the unstable nature of the system in order to let go and stay with the element that is stable already – the spirit – then we can even want to see viruses of different kinds on different levels of our existence. If we can see the extended or greater biological or natural Mind, perhaps to see the possibility of a virus getting in to the Great Universal Computer is helpful, it gives us the Mind’s-eye view of things as well as the body-eye view. The replication of a virus can also begin to look like the proliferating mind, that turns in on itself rather than opening to the whole. We can begin to see conscious, voluntary thought and communication as healthy, and likewise uncontrolled proliferation as like a disease. Passive entertainment we can see as merely fuel for our reflex proliferation. So, if, through the ultimate communication we call Dhamma, we can see this whole process and learn from it, we can begin to see its impersonal, uncertain nature on the highest level and let go of our identification with everything.
So to summarise, there is essentially nothing different in this viral sickness to another where the body is going wrong in some way. And if we can see that it is just the body that is going wrong, and this upsets the part of the mind that is the servant of the body, then we can detach from both the body and this part of the mind.
The last illusion is that samādhi without wisdom is already independent, a refuge. Even the emptiness of mind that holds itself apart is not safe precisely because it needs to hold itself. There is always and only a refuge there in the emptiness of the mind that arises within this body mind system – not apart from it. This is the natural result of true wisdom, of love of truth and of true love.
So I offer all this for your reflection. If the perception I am trying to create leads to your peace and happiness and motivates you in a good direction I hope you may remember it and find a refuge, if not please quickly forget the laboratory, the greenhouse and all the rest!
Ajahn Kalyāno – http://www.openthesky.co.uk
At a time of crisis to be able to laugh at something we are afraid of – or just to laugh at a time when we are afraid – can be a great release. Being English this is, of course, very much part of my culture, it is also very common in North East Thailand, the great ‘Land of the Arahants’. My mother does well at this. She lost a breast to cancer a few years ago, blind and in her eighties. The day after the operation one of the other patients on the ward asked her how she was doing, she replied,
“Well, I am half the woman I was.”
My sense of humour has, however, been the most difficult aspect of writing these short articles – knowing when it could be alright to add a little humour and when not in such a grave situation. For also, of course, humour at the wrong moment or to someone who does not understand your sense of humour, or when you are joking, can be a disaster. The meditation group I teach in Oslo asked me in the beginning of the pandemic whether I could give a talk for them once a week on camera. I had to say I would rather do a video conference where I could see who I was talking to, and also chose to write these short articles as my response at this time of crisis.
So often in life we learn how to relate to ourselves by relating to others. So often we will know how to respond to our own minds if we see what is happening as if from the outside. If we cannot really see where we are at or do not want to be honest about it to ourselves, we can joke ourselves along through a crisis and then lack compassion for ourselves at the crucial moment, creating a bit of an inner disaster. We can joke in a way that accepts a situation or in a way that does not. We have to be aware of our underlying intention, as always. The result we get will always depend on this. So often I am asked how to get rid of unpleasant emotions. If someone comes to see us experiencing an unpleasant emotion, if we try to get rid of them how do they respond?
I also know how difficult it can be to listen and retain at such a time. In this respect we are often reliant on the perceptions, the wisdom we have or do not have, the calm we have or do not have, and have to ride with that; we can very rarely take in a lot of new information. Also, from my own perspective, this approach gives me a chance to take time and choose my words carefully. All this could be good advice for communicating with others at such a time. We have to realise that people may not be very ‘with it’ and could forget or misunderstand. These can be very emotional times. We can need to respond to these emotions both within ourselves and in others, to give them time. Whether we like them or not, whether we think we should have them or not, emotions are not wrong on the spiritual path.