Sunday, January 31, 2010

Drinking tea when there's no way out

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia.

I’ve been reading a book of stories by the Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm called Opening the Door of Your Heart (previously published as ‘Who ordered this truck-load of dung?’).

It’s a lovely book, full of short stories, some of them re-telling Buddhist fables and tales and others recollections from Ajahn Brahm’s life.  The chapters are all very short, and the whole book is alive with warmth and humour. I think it's well-suited to people who have an illness and might have trouble concentrating or reading.

I found one of the stories particularly moving and enlightening.  It's the story of a man who’d been in the British Army in World War 2 (and later met Ajahn Brahm). The man had been on patrol in the Burmese jungle when the scout from his patrol returned to tell the captain that somehow they’d stumbled into the middle of a large number of Japanese soldiers. They were surrounded, with no way to move out. The patrol expected to be ordered to advance, and even if none of them survived at least they might be able to kill some of the enemy. 

But instead, the captain told his men to stay where they were, sit down, and have a cup of tea. The man who told the story to Ajahn Brahm said that they all thought the captain had gone mad. But, they were in the army and they had to obey him.
“They all made what they thought was to be their last cup of tea.  Before they had finished drinking their tea, the scout came back and whispered to his captain. The captain asked for the men’s attention. ‘The enemy has moved,’ he announced. ‘There is now a way out. Pack your kit quickly, and quietly – let’s go!”
The man told Ajahn Brahm that he felt like he owed his life to his captain, and not just for saving him in Burma. 
“Several times in his life, it was as if he was surrounded by the enemy, completely outnumbered, with no way out and about to die.  He meant by ‘the enemy’ serious illness, horrendous difficulty and tragedy, in the middle of which there seemed no way out. Without the experience in Burma he would have tried to fight his way through the problem, and no doubt made it much worse. But instead...he simply sat down and made a cup of tea.”
After reading this story I put the book down and lay there for a while, just listening to the sounds of the Australian bush on a summer’s night – the crickets, and the rustling of the gum trees outside my caravan. In my mind I saw an image of me, surrounded by my enemies of fatigue, pain, despair, fear and depression.  I saw them all around, surrounding me in the dark night, lurking in the trees and bushes outside my caravan.

What was my inclination?  Was it to sit and have a cup of tea?  Or, was it to hurl myself headlong at these enemies – hoping to fight my way through and emerge at the other side, wounded but alive?

Of course, it was the latter.  But, for the first time in my life I could see that there was another option.  I didn’t have to throw myself on my enemies and wrestle them to the ground in an adrenalin-pumped fight to the death.  I could just sit, have a drink, and say, ‘who knows?...let’s wait.’ 

I started making a little meditation around this.  I allowed the difficult feelings to arise, and imagined myself sitting down, drinking a cup of tea, and shrugging my shoulders...just waiting.  This was a completely new way of relating to these feelings. Immediately I could feel the some of the huge responsibility I’d taken for all these ‘enemies’ slip away.  They were still there – but it seemed they weren't totally my fault, and totally my responsibility to fix. I saw that it wasn’t my job to destroy myself fighting them. I could be aware of them, without blaming myself so much for them being there.

Often people with an illness are encouraged not to 'play the victim.' We're encouraged instead to take responsibility for our situation, to heal our own bodies, to investigate why we have 'dis-ease.'  In itself, this isn’t a bad thing, but I wonder sometimes whether the pendulum has slipped a little too far one way and whether we are being urged to take on too much responsibility for what is happening to our bodies. Ajahn Brahm’s story made me realise I’ve taken on far too much responsibility for my illness. It has been a profound realisation, and one that I know I’ll be working with, and deepening, over the next weeks and months.   
One of the huts at Santi Forest Monastery

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Shinzen Young - book giveaway!

As a little present for one of my readers I’m giving away a copy of ‘Break Through Pain’ by Shinzen Young.  Break Through Pain is a book and CD set, and is in excellent second-hand condition. I’ve read the book and copied the CD onto my lappy, so I thought I’d give the set away to someone interested in exploring Shinzen Young’s pain meditation techniques.

The first person to e-mail me gets the book.  Please send me your postal address along with the e-mail. It doesn’t matter if you don’t live in Australia, I’ll send the book anywhere (on earth. No e-mails from space please).

Once someone e-mails me I’ll come back and update this page so you’ll know if the book has already be taken by an earlier reader.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Church of Hard Knocks

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia.

13 December

I’ve been reading a book by Petrea King called ‘Sometimes Hearts Have to Break.’ Petrea is a well known Australian healer and counsellor who’s worked for years with people who have life-threatening conditions. In her book, Petrea tells her own story of recovery from leukemia, and the stories of some of her clients.

One of the stories was of a young, newly married couple who were members of a type of Christian Church where illness was believed to be caused by lack of faith.  Getting any treatment or using pain-relief to deal with an illness was seen as mere pandering to the devil; the person had to heal through faith alone.  If they didn’t heal, it was because their faith wasn’t strong enough.

Tough stuff – but could see how I run a particular branch of this church in my mind.  I have a strong belief that my illness was caused by something I did wrong.  This is how the thought pattern runs in my head: I’ve been kicked out into the wilderness of pain and illness by some spiritual or ethical flaw, and my task is to work as hard as I can to fix myself and be allowed back into the land of the well. These beliefs run very deep and are hard to see – and when I do see them they’re difficult to deal with.

In Petrea King’s story about her clients, the husband had been diagnosed with bowel cancer 6 months previously.  He’d had no treatment, and no pain relief.  Now, he was dying, and as well as having to deal with an early and difficult death, he felt an enormous sense of failure because his faith obviously wasn’t strong enough to save him. Petrea counselled the young couple and talked to them about the idea of a loving, compassionate, caring God – not just the judgemental God of the Old Testament. The man died the day after he saw Petrea – with less physical pain (because he accepted morphine), but also, with some freedom from the terrible burden of self-blame that he’d carried.

Here’s what Petrea wrote after telling his story:
‘Many people fall into the trap of trying to earn their recovery, believing if they only find the right combination of therapies they will be able to undo the cause of their disease.  This thinking is quite popular in our society at present and the worst misunderstanding of this philosophy is that we create our illnesses in order to learn some spiritual lesson from them....
This is a complex area and is often grossly simplified by proponents of this philosophy.  It can serve as a terrible judgement and certainly doesn’t facilitate the experience of deeply joining together in our humanity. There is often a hidden agenda which says, ‘If you eat the right foods, forgive the past, meditate for hours a day, drink your vegetable juices, take your vitamins, and only focus on the ‘positive’ , then you might not die of your disease.’
 It seems natural that we all search for certainties when the only constant in our world is change. Impermanence is scary. I can see that my mind struggles constantly to find reasons for things I can’t explain – why am I sick? Why are some babies born with AIDS? How can thousands of lives be snuffed out in a tsunami?

Sometimes this immense and incomprehensible suffering leads us to develop systems of judgement and blame – just so we can feel some small sense of control.  We can use these systems to assure ourselves that we can find a way out of our own pain (if we just meditate long enough/eat raw foods/buy enough crystals/fix our flaws). We can also use these systems to reassure ourselves that the terrible pain that’s happening to someone else won’t happen to us (she got cancer because she repressed her anger – but that won’t happen to me!)

 I can see the system of blame I’m running in my own mind, but I can’t change it. A constant thought stream buzzes through my head- if I just work harder at meditation, if I could just relax more, if I could just be more peaceful/less angry/more open-hearted – then I’d get well. Those demanding and critical thoughts run deep, and fighting them just seems to leave me more exhausted and entrenched in blame. I’m trying to close down the church branch in my mind – but it just doesn’t want to go! I try to remind myself that just witnessing it, just being aware of its existance, is an important first step.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Just Relax!

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia.

7th December

At lunch today I was talking to a woman named Jacqui who’s come up from Sydney to stay here for a few days.  Over our dhal and rice, we talked about my experiences with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the time she’d spent with an auto-immune disorder.

She made a comment that I thought was really interesting. She’d been to see a psychologist, who was also a Buddhist and he told her that her illness was caused by stress.Jacqui’s face became animated, and she talked about how this comment made her feel.

‘I asked him why he said that,’ she said. ‘Because it’s just not helpful!  It might be true, but for the person who’s having the illness it’s not helpful. It’s up to the person themselves to come to some sort of realisation about what their illness is caused, or not caused by.’

‘That’s so true.’ I said. ‘It’s like someone wagging their finger in your face saying ‘just relax!’ – that’s not relaxing at all.  All that happens is that you have your original problems and then on top of it you feel ashamed because you think you shouldn't be stressed, but you are!'

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m not guilty of thinking other people should ‘just relax;’  my sister and I have often fantasized about dropping a valium in my mother’s cup of tea in the hope it would calm her down -  or at least make her sit down.  (We never used it; you’d need a bulldozer and a ten battalion fascist army to subdue my mum – I’m fairly sure mere pharmaceuticals couldn’t do it).

Jacqui and I talked about the best way to get the ‘just relax’ message across without making the other person feel judged. We both thought that it was important to be able to support and encourage people to relax, not to just wag a finger in their face telling them what to do.  Better still – just provide the supportive conditions and encouragement without even telling the person you think they should be more relaxed.  After all, what’s more delightful and helpful to hear?

a)    You’re so stressed out...just relax!
b)    You’re a great friend and I really care about you. Life seems hard for you at the moment – would you like to spend a week chilling out in my multi-million dollar Byron Bay beachhouse?

OK – obviously a rhetorical question, but as I was typing I spent a few seconds imagining a friend in front of me saying a) and b).  When I imagined someone saying a) I had tightness in my chest, and feelings of disappointment and not being understood.  When I imagined b) I felt relaxed, delighted, and very connected to my imaginary property tycoon friend.

I also winced at the thought of how many thousands of times I’ve told someone to ‘chill out’ or ‘just relax’ and how this might have made the other person feel.  Because my illness causes a lot of adrenal problems and anxiety, I probably order myself to relax many more time than I say it to anyone else. So, maybe I’ll try to take a break from telling other people – and myself – to ‘just chill out.’  (Because it’s probably the least likely thing to induce any chilled-ness!)

Coming back down to my little caravan in the bush after my conversation with Jacqui  I lay on the wooden deck outside the van, and started listening to a Tara Brach talk. She said, ‘ I sometimes get impatient with the instructions that are given traditionally for meditation which is ‘just relax, just relax, be in the present moment’ if that’s, like, an easy thing to do!’
Relaxing is not, like, an easy thing to do – or we’d all be walking around in a state of calm equanimity.  I must try to remember that next time I’m with an uptight person (such as myself!) and am thinking impatiently to myself, ‘Could you just relax!’

My fantasy Byron Bay beach house. Boy...could I relax there!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My Little Everest

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia.

Monday 7th December

Yesterday I had a long chat with one of the monks who live at this monastery, and it turned out to be very helpful.  Because I’m usually housebound or bedbound with my illness I can’t get out to meditation classes, so I’m pretty much on my own as far as meditation instruction goes. Being able to come to Santi Forest Monastery for a few weeks, and have people I can talk to about meditation is so valuable.

I first got in contact with this monastery through telephone.  I rang, talked to the Abbott, and then rang him every few weeks to ask meditation questions.  I was very embarrassed when I met him to find out what an esteemed and extremely busy Abbott he is – to think I was bothering him with my oh-so-basic meditation questions still makes me cringe a bit.  After the second or third phone call, he said that I could come and stay at Santi if I wanted to. He said I didn’t have to attend breakfast, morning meetings, or do any work – I could just come as I was and do whatever I was able to do.

This was a big challenge for me – firstly to summon the energy to get to the monastery, secondly, to deal with the shame I felt at not being able to get up early,work, and meditate like everyone else, and, thirdly, to overcome the fear at spending 6 weeks with no distractions – just me and my illness. I had spent the past 10 years doing everything I could to avoid feeling my pain, and now it was just going to be the two of us for 6 whole weeks!  How romantic – me and my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in a little hut in the woods.

It turned out to be even tougher than I thought it would be.  I got very sick after I arrived and struggled even to get to the main midday meal and have a shower.  All I seemed to do was lie in my bed in my little hut and cry.  I felt like I was in prison. Looking at the people around me all I could think was, ‘What are you doing here?  Why do you seem so happy...this is hell!’ Whenever I talked to the Abbott I’d cry, and I kept thinking that he must be thinking, ‘Why did I ask this crazy woman to come here?!’

I vividly remember talking to him just before I left. I apologised for spending the whole 6 weeks in tears. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘Every monastery needs someone who just sits in the their kuti [hut] and cries.’ I smiled with relief, and we both laughed.

‘You’ve done a good job, ‘he said.  Somehow I knew that he was being completely sincere - although, if anyone else had said this to me I wouldn’t have believed them. I felt that he really did think what I’d done was difficult, and I’d done well in persisting with it.  I have to say I agreed with him – I certainly didn’t feel any better physically, but I knew that in facing my illness head-on I’d climbed my own little Everest.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

My Breath and I, We’re the Best of Mates

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia. 

Last night, after an intense meditation where I was feeling a lot of tension and resistance in my mind and body, I went up to the monastery library to see if I could find anything helpful to read.  I really felt completely stuck – I could observe the tension, the fighting, the utter dislike of my own thoughts and experience – but I couldn’t find any way of working with them.  Every ‘technique’ I tried just left me feeling more and more stuck. 

I found a book by the Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm called Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond. Ajahn Brahm was born in the UK, but for many years has been the Abbot of a monastery in Australia.  (He’s currently in the news for controversially ordaining women, and being kicked out of the Thai lineage his monastery  belonged to...but that’s another story).

Often when I go searching for something in a book that will help me during my ‘stuck’ periods I find nothing, but this time I found a really beautiful section on relating to meditation in a friendly, relaxed, way.  It was exactly what I needed to read.  Here’s the section – may you find it useful too.

‘I love meditation.  I enjoy it so much...Meditation is like a dear old friend that you want to spend time for the meditation object, the breath, we’ve had such a good time together, my breath and I. We’re the best of mates...The opposite of course, is when you know you have to be with that friggin breath and you don’t like see it coming along the other side of the street and you think, ‘Oh my God, here it is again.’

I use the following method to overcome any ill will toward my breath.  I look upon my breath like a newborn son or daughter.  Would you leave your baby at the shopping mall and just forget it?  Would you drop it as you’re walking on the road? If you appreciated your breath as much as your child or someone else who is very, very dear to you and very vulnerable, you would never drop, forget, or abandon it. ...When you have loving-kindness towards the meditation object you do not need much effort to hold it.’
I just love Ajahn Brahm’s happy, uncomplicated, joyful view of meditation.  After I read this I realised how much I see meditation as a chore; ‘I’m sick, and I’ve obviously done something wrong to be given this illness, so now I’ve got to do all this awful, boring, hard work to get better.’  I usually feel like I’m trudging along a long road with a heavy load.  Reading Ajahn Brahm’s book is a good reminder to me to take things a little more lightly – and a lot more kindly.

                                                                       Ajahn Brahm

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Spiritual Materialism

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia.

3rd December

I borrowed a copy of ‘Cutting through Spiritual Materialism’ by Chogyam Trungpa, from the monastery library yesterday – mostly because I was intrigued by the title. The book is based on a series of talks that Chogyam Trungpa gave to meditation students in Colorado around thirty years ago.  In the introduction he says:
‘walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively.  There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centred version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity ... This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.’
Included in this idea of spiritual materialism is the way that ‘the ego tries to examine and imitate the practice of meditation and the meditative way of life.’  I can relate to this well, especially because I’m now staying at a monastery where I’m surrounded by people pursuing the monastic spiritual life.  I perceive all of these people to be way more advanced along the spiritual path than I am, and find that I’m always looking for cues as to how I should be behaving.

Should I be walking as slowly as that very peaceful Chinese nun?  Why do I feel like I always want to talk during lunch, when everyone else seems to be content to be silent? What am I supposed to be feeling during the chanting?  (I’m guessing it’s not ‘bored and confused.’)

As I sense myself looking around at everyone else to gage what is the right way to feel, act, speak, and think, I’m starting to notice how  ill-at-ease and acutely self-conscious I feel when I’m engaged in this type of spiritual materialism.  I’m starting to just notice this confusion - this sense that I’m not doing it ‘right’ - and am slowly recognising that it's something that's followed me around my whole life. I can remember feeling like this in Grade 1, when Sr Julian hit me over the knuckles with her ruler after catching me counting on my fingers in maths class.

During the chanting last night, (which I can’t understand because it’s in Pali), I suddenly noticed how uncomfortable I was.  I was searching for how I should be feeling, when what I was actually feeling was mild boredom, a back-ache, and curiosity about which person was chanting wildly out of tune.  

Boredom? Curiosity?  This was all wrong!  I wasn't expecting white-light, or an appearance by the Buddha (or Jack Kornfield),  but I should be feeling something at least vaguely spiritual...shouldn't I?   It all felt so confusing. Sigh.  Eventually I just gave up and settled into whatever I was feeling in that moment, regardless of how spiritual or non-spiritual it was. I can’t say I felt any amazing revelation, basically I just felt pretty bored and kept thinking ‘will this ever end?’ and finally, it did, and I went to bed.

And so ended my second day in the monastery.

Friday, January 1, 2010

First day at the monastery

This post was written in December 2009, when I was spending a month staying at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney, Australia. 

It’s my first day at the monastery.  I arrived last night after an exhausting day of car-train-bus-plane travel, and was surprised at how at home I felt immediately.  The first time I came to here, a year ago, I felt completely alienated.  I didn’t know very much at all about Buddhism, and was particularly ignorant about how a monastery worked.

I had the general feeling that Buddhism wasn’t really into rules, but was a ‘free-and-easy’ kind of religion. My primary attraction to Buddhism meditation had come when I heard that the Buddha had said something along the lines of ‘here’s what I know to be true, but don’t trust me – work it out for yourself.’  ‘A religion that actually allows you to think for yourself?  I want a piece of that!’ I thought.

So, I was in for a surprise when I got to the monastery, which is located in acres of bushland a few hours out of Sydney. It's run in the tradition of Thai Theravadan forest monasteries - with an emphasis on solitary meditation, and living as the Buddha did. 

The Buddha set down rules, called 'precepts,' for his monks and nuns, which are followed to this day by monastics in the Theravadan tradition.  While I’m at the monastery I follow the 8 basic precepts which include refraining from: stealing, consciously lying, games, music, singing, and dancing.  (Yes, I’ve had to leave my ghetto-blaster and tap-shoes at the monastery gates).  One of the 8 precepts is to refrain from eating food between midday and dawn the next day, but because I’ve got a medical condition I’m exempt from this precept and can have an evening meal. 

Ordained Buddhist monastics have a code of discipline called the Patimoka, which is a list of the precepts.  The Patimoka lists 227 precepts for monks, and 311 for nuns.  It includes  precepts about how to eat, how to wash clothes, how to wash yourself, and how often to shave your head.  Here's a few:

  • Should any bhikkhu [monk] have a blanket made of a mixture containing silk, it is to be forfeited and confessed.
  • Should any bhikkhu knowingly deprive an animal of life, it is to be confessed.
  • Should any bhikkhu try to frighten another bhikkhu, it is to be confessed. 
The first time I came to this monastery, I was completely bowled over by all these precepts.  ‘This is worse than the Catholic Church,’ I thought, ‘This is like a prison!  What are these people doing here when they could be free!’  I was in full reaction mode, reeling from a kind of culture shock.  Didn’t the Buddha encourage people to think for themselves?  How could I make sense of this?

As time went on, I came to see that for the monastics, these rules somehow offered a greater, not lesser, degree of freedom.  Not being able to handle money, grow vegetables, or cook food, allowed them to experience dependence, and interdependence, on the world, and also, practically, gave them time to devote themselves to their meditation practice. The precepts also encouraged mindfulness in everyday life - not just when meditating.

I don’t pretend to have any  in depth understanding of how following the precepts works for the monastics; what I actually realised was that it wasn’t really any of my business.  It worked for them – and they weren’t asking me to follow hundreds of precepts, just some fairly basic ones – so why worry about it?  I saw that I was following my path, and they were following theirs, and to just get on with it.

So, here I am, at my third visit to Santi Forest Monastery.  Just getting on with it...

(Actually, what I’m doing is avoiding meditation practice by writing a blog post.  Naughty, naughty.)

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