Cards

Cards

 

Just thought I would say thank you to all who have sent cards and messages of support – it means a lot to me.

Beautiful sunny morning. I am not much of a birdwatcher, but a yellow wagtail caught my attention. The resident mallard is out there on the lake. Mostly I see his rear end in the air as his front end bobs down to reach whatever it is he is feeding on. There is usually a moorhen around too. This afternoon I’ll be calling in at IKEA and a DIY shop, and tomorrow I’ll probably be assembling some shelving and putting up voile curtains in my bedroom. I am finding it deeply satisfying to do simple (I hope!) physical work to set up Sitting Buddha Hermitage.

Patience in the Face of Discomfort

Two days ago the weather was wild. A Met. Office Severe Weather warning had been issued and structural damage was expected over a huge swathe of Britain. At a critical moment the other morning it was clearly a time to decide to stay indoors, batten down the hatches and sit it out. But I was due to travel in an hour to stay with somebody for a couple of days. And I could hear the two people who had been with me already packing their car to return to Sussex. The wind was howling and the rain was horizontal! What to do? This was one of those moments when whichever way one turns there’s no easy solution. Plans can be changed, appointments rescheduled but on that wild morning my hand wouldn’t lift the phone to adjust plans and it was also clear my guests intended to travel, no matter what.

Dilemma is defined as being in a state of uncertainty or perplexity especially when requiring a choice between equally unfavourable options. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, knowing a move needs to be made but movement isn’t happening! With the added pressure of the severe weather and the danger it brings anxiety was running high. All the while the tiles on the roof rattled even louder! And then the phone rang. After a brief conversation about the weather the caller said softly, Gran died at 3.30 this morning. And with that piece of the jigsaw in place the picture changed completely, my hand reached for the telephone to cancel my trip and then I waved off the car bound for Sussex somehow confident that all would be well. And it was.

Being in a state of uncertainty and perplexity, can be an in-the-moment kind of thing as described above, or it can be an ongoing state lasting months or even years. Most often though life require that a step be taken and then be ready to adjust direction along the way.  Doing the right thing for the right reason is something we would all aspire to do I’m sure. However, as with my recent decision to step back from the Field of Merit project, one doesn’t always know what the reasons for one’s actions are in advance! One thing is for sure though. As with the weather so it is with our lives. It is simply not possible to know the complex web of factors that are exerting themselves at any one time. Just sometimes, perhaps more often that we think, it’s good to pause and wait a moment or a day, or longer, in uncomfortableness. A previously unknown factor might just show itself and the hand can move, and with greater dexterity.

This is not to advocate for procrastination, more for patience in the face of discomfort.

This post is for the woman who died early Thursday morning and for her granddaughter and family.

Shining the Light Within

So the clocks went back last Saturday. We appreciated the extra hour gained that night, but now it is getting dark around 5pm in this valley in the North Pennines. In the darkness you can see pinpoints of light coming from other dwellings in the distance, a little like lanterns scattered around the hillside.

This morning I noticed a chill wind for the first time as I walked back up the lane after morning service, a taste of the winter weather to come. I zipped my coat right up and felt my body contract against the cold.

The lights across the valley in the evenings make me think of how, in winter, we tend to want to stay home more, to be less active, to withdraw within in a physical sense. It is also a natural time to withdraw within in the spiritual sense, to spend more time in meditation and reflection, to shine the light within when the days are darker outside.

I like the description of meditation as shining the light within because it is this bringing of light, of awareness and acceptance, to all that is here now, that will transform us. When something is truly seen and accepted – a fear, a grasping, an humiliation – the letting go occurs as the natural outcome of meditation. Thoughts and feelings about it may still occur, but we are able to dwell within the pleasant and the unpleasant without being caught up in desire and aversion. And when desire and aversion drop away our natural state of joy and appreciation is revealed.

Constancy Within Change

Prayer plant moving into repose.

Prayer plant moving into repose.

Recently I adopted a Prayer Plant and being around it as day passes into evening and then night I’ve got to know its schedule. The leaves rotate to a vertical position towards the end of the day then in the morning quite early they start to rotate to the horizontal, the leaves moving apart. I like to think the plant goes into offering mode during the day and as the afternoon wears on it prepares to move within by folding as if in prayer. It was only a few days ago that it dawned on me that this plant is actually constantly moving, if imperceptibly. I talk about this in an article titled Slow Change with the focus on how sudden change gets our attention and slow change can have us feeling stuck and frustrated while in actual fact change never stops.

Years ago while at Reading Priory I hosted a monk who was quite unwell. She spent most of her day in her room doing what she could. She had a prayer plant and found it a wonderful companion reminding her to move within as the leaves reliably moved to prayer position in late afternoon. The opening up of the leaves cheering her into a new day. The plant spoke of unfailing constancy within change and I think it gave her hope. She called the plant Belinda. My plant maybe a distant relative, I’d like to think so.

This is for the late Rev. Mildred. She taught me so much.

 

It is Friday

It is Friday, and my turn to write a blog post. It is less than 48 hours since I arrived back from the monastic sangha gathering at Shasta Abbey in the US and I am not quite with it yet. I can tell by how confused I get by small things, like which door to go through, and by how much effort it takes to engage in conversation and simple tasks.

Those who know me will know that I am a bit of a perfectionist, and it goes against the grain to sit down and try and write something when my brain is not firing on all cylinders. But isn’t this just what training is all about—accepting that the universe is not answerable to my personal will and that I will frequently have to work with what seem to me to be unsatisfactory circumstances?

I have to remind myself that this view, of circumstances being imperfect, is just that, my view. If instead I can drop the judgment (doesn’t the Sandokai admonish us not to set up our own standards?) and work with life as it is, things flow much more freely. It is not, after all, about achieving the ends, but about how we get there. It is much more important to me to learn acceptance and non-judgement than to turn out a profound piece of writing. And when I stop worrying about it, and trust in something beyond the powers of my own head I’m probably going to make a much better job of it anyway.

It seems to get a little easier as I get older to let go of my own standards, and to be less concerned about what others will think (although I suspect it is what I think that others might think that is the problem).

Here is a photo of the view of Mount Shasta from Shasta Abbey, taken by Rev. Lambert. It is pretty stunning to catch sight of, especially when it has been obscured by clouds and suddenly revealed again.

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta

 

Vive la Difference

More than once, on an introductory retreat, a person new to Buddhist practice has expressed the concern that training might strip away their personality, that in letting go of attachment to self they would become bland. I chuckle inwardly and think about the community of monks I live with, who could be described in many ways, but who could never be called bland!

I am writing this at Shasta Abbey in Northern California where 50 monks are gathered from temples of the OBC throughout the US, Canada and Europe and we are certainly a pretty diverse and interesting bunch. I think it does everyone good to spend a bit of time occasionally with a different group of people. We have a tendency to regard our usual group as some kind of norm whom we measure ourselves by. Putting oneself into a different situation can show up how arbitrary our comparisons really are.

What am I getting at here?

Everyone wants to be loved and accepted. It is very common that people modify their behaviour in order to be more acceptable to the group that they wish to be part of, whether this is a group of friends, family, work colleagues or indeed a spiritual community. It is also natural to try to emulate a revered teacher or person whom one greatly respects. But often we find that we are comparing ourselves with others and deciding that because we find ourselves to be different, that we are at fault. For example, I have almost no grasp, or interest, in politics. So if I find myself in the midst of a conversation about current affairs it would be easy for me to feel inadequate in that area, to feel that I ought to educate myself about politics and current affairs. But put me with a different group of people and this would never occur to me. So this shows me that measuring myself against others is a pretty hit-and-miss affair and it is just more thoughts in my head.

My point is that Buddhist training is not about setting up an ideal of the person that we aspire to be and then trying to achieve it. Letting go of attachment to self is letting go of being pushed around by our thoughts and it leaves us free to truly be ourselves in all our wonderful uniqueness. So if we are to use any measure at all, let it be how at ease we are with ourselves, as we are, (perceived) warts and all, and how little we feel the need to compare ourselves with others.

If You Meet Someone Without a Smile…

           …give them one of yours.

I saw this recently on a greetings card in a shop. I am reminded of it now as I prepare to fly to the US on Wednesday for a gathering of the monastics of our Order at Shasta Abbey in California. International travel can be a stressful event for many, and as I get older I am certainly less blasé about it myself. Folk are not at their best when they are worried and anxious, and I find it good to try and remember this when people are blocking the gangway with their luggage or bumping into me as they pass. Rather than scowl at them (even if only inwardly) I prefer to acknowledge them with a smile and give them a hand if it’s needed. It certainly makes my journey more pleasant and relaxed.

Meeting someone’s eye and smiling seems such a small thing but can have a deep effect on both the giver and receiver. We never know when this simple human connection can make all the difference in someone’s life.

To some people this comes naturally, others have to work a bit at it. I can sometimes sit down next to a person for a three-hour train journey and have no idea what they look like until we both get up at the end of the journey – a bit odd really, when you think about it.

It can also be a cultural thing. I was born and brought up in London. When I went to university in Sheffield I can remember being rather anxious when a woman got on a relatively empty bus and sat next to me. If you are a fellow Londoner you’ll know what I mean. If you are from Sheffield you’ll know that she was probably just being companionable (she was).

Making contact with another human being in a friendly way has a beneficial effect on both and reminds us of our interconnectedness. So let’s not keep our smiles to ourselves.

A Call to Maintenance

I’ve just got back from dropping off a car at the local garage for its annual MOT Test. For those who don’t know this is a Ministry of Transport test for road worthiness and having a current test certificate is a legal requirement in order to use public roads in Britain. Fingers crossed the car gets through OK even though, it being nearly ten years old, I’m not counting on it passing first time.

From an early age we are instructed on the importance and practice of maintenance, of taking care of ourselves and what we use. I’ve memories of being reminded to brush my teeth, wash my hands before meals and tidy my hair. Quickly we learn that grazes need plasters and persistent bleeding is an emergency! Almost as soon as we can walk, I remember, there is talk of shoes needing repair, my bike chain having to be oiled and having to make my bed and tidy up! Small daily acts of taking care of ourselves, what we use and what surrounds us, is rightly instilled in us early on and hopefully stand us in good stead for the rest of our lives.

But maintenance takes time and in the rush and bustle of daily life small signs of something needing attention can be pushed to one side or simply ignored. Time needs to be set aside and in the monastic schedule we have Renewal Days each week. Typically this is the day when medical appointments are scheduled and shopping trips organized. Also it’s a time when robes are mended and new ones made, that’s along with a seemingly endless list of ‘must do’ personal maintenance tasks. This all sounds neat and tidy but nothing ever is especially since there are so very many calls on our time and energies, not to mention pockets. There’s a need to prioritise but that doesn’t catch everything by any means. Things do break for lack of replacing the lost screw, medical conditions do get out of hand because having tests are time consuming, and cars break down in inconvenient and lonely places because a suspicious noise had been ignored.

Years ago I took my car to the garage. It wasn’t due to be serviced or for its MOT test either. You know, I said to the mechanic, this might sound strange but I feel like one of the wheels is about to drop off! Later when I returned the garage the chap said, You were right, the wheel could easily have dropped off! I’d changed a wheel some time before and put back the wheel nuts the wrong way around so they were working loose. There was no charge if I remember correctly.

So the message is that we do the best we can to take care of and maintain our own health, that which we use and which gives us service. In the wider community we can play our part too. And then there is paying attention to and following up on those little niggles, those stray thoughts that come unbidden such as the one that came to me about the loose wheel. Having regular times each day to simply sit still and purposefully do nothing, meditate, means that there is more chance of those stray thoughts being heard and taken notice of when they come. Often not while formally meditating.

Breath-by-breath and step-by-step

Just imagine. Just imagine climbing up the outside of London’s 1,016 foot Shard? Sixteen grueling hours in extreme conditions. That was yesterday and one to remember for sure. Today is another day for all of us and that’s including the six women who got arrested once they had achieved their goal. Now they have the rest of their lives to live. There is a double side to achieving goals which should not, of course, stop one from setting targets and going for them. Perhaps they did what many would aspire to do. To stand up (climb up!) for what we believe to be true and important.

I bumped into this event about an hour before the lead climber unfurled a  flag announcing arrival, and their reason for the climb. Clearly they were technically skilled, had realistically assessed the challenge and the risks, trained mentally and physically for the job and decided it was worth a go. What made the climb practically possible are the edges of the Shard which have a ladder like structure running up the corners of the predominately glass clad building. Their convictions outweighing almost certain prosecution and of course potentially death. They knew what they were doing.

Goal setting is doubled edged. On the one hand we would be lost without something up ahead to aim for. Be that ever so small, such as sweeping the back yard TODAY. Or deciding (excuse the plug!) to join in for a specific number of meditation periods on the next Field of Merit At Home meditation day – 20th July. And on the other hand, having achieved a goal, one is left looking for another one, and another one….ad infinitum. Is that any way to live actually? Always having ones eyes fixed to a point in the distance and in so doing maybe miss the ground, or the rung, under ones feet. I bet those women were very much absorbed in their next steps. The reasons for taking them at that point in their lives paling into insignificance before the imperative to survive. As somebody said recently, Each step IS the goal.

What if, having set a goal something changes and a new or different direction is needed? The women on the Shard were originally going to install a piece of art work but decided they didn’t have enough time to do that before dark. So they let go of a major part of their expedition. I will remember that when I’m tempted to push on when turning around, or sitting down, is a wiser plan. It’s too easy to see failure in such circumstances when redirection can be an expression of valor, if you think about it from a certain viewpoint.

What is it that has us engage in the seeming antithesis of what the six did yesterday? That’s breath-by-breath formal sitting and step-by-step daily life sitting? After all in the life of Buddhist practice there are no fixed goals to aim for. Yes, we do set temporary goals such as meditating for specific periods of time each day. However what is significant is the relationship we each have to those goals. Can we let go or redirect as needed? What is it then that has us returning to our ‘sitting place’ over and over and over again? Within our teaching we speak about all sharing a deep knowledge (strong inner conviction) of what is true and important. We regard this as being the case irrespective of faith tradition, or absence of one. How this truth is given expression through action is our unique gift. Hopefully the basic motivation is altruistic.

After sitting we get up and live our life,
best we can.
After the climb there is the rest of their lives,
all merit as they go on.

Renewal

Tomorrow I am going to a cottage in the Lake District for two weeks of renewal. I like this term renewal. My dictionary gives one definition of renew as “give fresh life or strength to”. At the monastery we use the term to refer to any periods of time when we are free of our usual duties and can choose how to spend our time. The term was chosen, I believe, to point to how such time is to be most wisely used. It encourages one to tune it to what this bodymind needs to do to refresh itself. It could be almost anything, from a good long walk (plenty of opportunity for that where I’m going!) to occupying oneself with an art or craft that gives a focus and exercises a skill, or reading, gardening, even sleeping if that is what is really needed.

I used to wonder sometimes what it is that makes work different from any other activity. I read recently that a survey that was designed to discover under what conditions optimal experiences occurred – optimal experience being the times that people felt most happy, satisfied, creative, concentrated – discovered that although people reported the desire to spend less time at work and more time in leisure activities, most of their optimal experiences occurred at work. The researchers made two conclusions. One is that people are so immersed in the cultural stereotype of work as an imposition and limitation on their freedom that they don’t pay attention to the evidence of their senses. The second conclusion was that leisure activities, in reality, often consisted of collapsing in front of the TV for hours on end, providing no opportunity for using skills that are creative and satisfying.

So if we are approaching work as, for example, something distasteful that is to be gotten through, it may well be our own concept of work that is making the experience less than satisfactory. And when we do get free time to choose what we will do, we would do well to put some effort into making it a time of renewal by engaging in an activity that inspires and refreshes us, rather than dropping onto the couch and switching off into mindless distraction.

Back in a fortnight!