POSTCARD # 482: Bangkok: Getting the mind right about the forthcoming visit to Scotland, leaving Bangkok on the 1st September, and looking forward to the journey. I shall carry my headache on board like a piece of cabin luggage, it has to be attended to, no different from being down on the ground. A few hours of sitting, occasional sleep then wakened by stabs of head-ache. This is the way it has gone on other flights. Swallow the meds and support the head with one hand, as if it were separated from the body, 5 kilos, 11 pounds (Wiki) feeling its weight by holding the chin in hand, with elbow placed on the supporting arm rest, and bone conduction allows the hypnotic hum of engine noise into the ear mechanism, cranial cavities and vibrating skull containing headache, lulled into ‘airplane mode.’
Long journeys by air are kinda liberating… I don’t have to think why I’m “here” in an existential sense, I’m here because it’s on the way to somewhere else. As a young man, I used to like being on these narrow UK trains travelling the North-South route, 600miles… you can book a window seat, look out the window, and watch the landscape go by in great gulps.
The problem is, on this airline journey, I have to get psyched up for the approaching destination. People are unpredictable over there… they don’t call it the Wild West for no reason. I’m used to the orderly civic responsibility of the Thai public. The threat of exploding bombs and terrorism is not used to hold society in its place – no X-ray machines when you enter public buildings. No pressing of horns in the traffic jams. No rules, they just did it. It’s like this, people just comply with the rule. Is it because Thailand is a Buddhist country? They use Anjali in a smaller way than in India. They are quiet, smiling, staying inside the parameters of their mind/body space. They are respectful, courteous – definitely not assertive. I’m not saying it’s all sweet and nice, and I hear some foreigners complain about this and that, but it’s their expectations that’s the problem… and that takes me back to ‘the approaching destination’ at the end of the journey. I shall just have to pretend to be the same as everyone else and hope for the best.
Getting there, the wide-eyed gaze of not much sleep, and time difference (6 hours back) leads to an enhanced familiarity with the present moment. Whatever, whenever, and wherever, I am a mirror reflection of the world out there, knowing there is no ‘out-there’ out there that’s separate from what’s in ‘here’. The present moment is everywhere I go, even in the unlikeliest of places. I keep bumping into it, the ubiquitous presence of the here-and-now. “Oh… what’s this?” Sometimes I don’t recognise it, seen in a cloud of unknowing. Is this the present moment or is it a cloud of unknowing? It could be I’m thinking it’s something it isn’t. In a different set of circumstances, I see it’s my relationship with it, the ongoing ‘whatever’ of it. So, I accept the present moment as it is, whether I am aware of it in its ‘as-it-is-ness’ or not, an all-inclusive experience of the awareness I’m thinking it’s something it isn’t, or the cloud of unknowing as the present moment.
I should not speak lightly of “The Cloud of Unknowing,” a Fourteenth Century anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English (The Cloude of Unknowyng). A spiritual guide on contemplative prayer, telling us the way to know God is to: “abandon consideration of God’s particular activities and attributes, and be courageous enough to surrender one’s mind and ego to the realm of “unknowing”, at which point one may begin to glimpse the nature of God.”
It’s a book I’ve carried around on many overseas trips and never managed to finish. There’s something about the above quote that reminds me of things the Buddhist monks have told me years ago, in my naïveté, or I heard it in a Dhamma talk or in a book I read. There is the “unsupported consciousness,” and the process of investigating the mind, you do it alone, maybe a bit like tightrope walking if you choose to have it like that. Or it is an intuitive direction you take with the guidance of a trusted teacher.
“… to cultivate equanimity, you have to be really patient. Patience is both an active and passive mental state; activity being the effort to just hold attention on and bear with conditions, whilst passivity is to let things work on us until our struggle with them and our denial of them is finished. Then the origin of suffering has been abandoned and the cessation of suffering has been realised.” [From: Gnosis and Non-Dualism, Ajahn Sucitto]
In this quote, I was held for a moment by Ajahn’s ‘passive patience’, allowing everything to take its course, including how everything is likely to not be at all passive in my allowing of it. It triggers something like the Inductive way of thinking, vague and confusing for the unprepared, Western mind. I find it difficult sometimes, other times it’s self-explanatory. Eastern cultural traditions are inductive, including the Buddha’s teaching. The ‘meaning’ is not deduced, it’s ‘induced’, revelatory. It is open-ended and exploratory. We begin with observations, start to notice patterns and there’s an idea of what it is, and by studying the observations, we ‘arrive at’ a conclusion, a summing-up. I got around to seeing it this way, eventually. What has helped is all these years living in the East, teaching classes in English, and marking students’ essays in Thailand and Japan.
Right now, I’m thinking of the anonymity of air travel. Up there at 38,000 feet, we’re all having this experience alone. Airline staff have a practiced way of receiving passengers without disturbing their solitude of the sky and clouds. Stop wandering in the conceptual realms, hold back on the tendency to make sense of things, or turning them into understandable thoughts. Whatever happens, abide in the open, unattached state.
I think for a moment that that’s what I’m doing, but pretty quick, I have to accept that no, I’m not. Wow! Nothing is what I think it is. I’m not being with what is, instead of that, I’m doing a story about ‘what is.’ As Ajahn S says, the passive form is a process of being open, so that the dualisms; the defences, and the justifications of self-view actually stop.
Usually we are the ’doer,’ we are ‘doing’ things, figuring things out. Here we have to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’. Can we just be with what is happening, opening to our feelings and perceptions without the need to control, understand, or do something with it? We have to get beyond the level of doing things in order to have that sense of furtherance. [Ajahn Sucitto, “Gnosis and Non-Dualism,”]
Coming near to the end now. The above is so much like the inductive form we discussed earlier. I intuitively know how it’s done – so now there remains the ‘doing’ of it, the allowing of it. I’ll write about that later as I discover more examples of the deductive/inductive.
Note about The Cloud of Unknowing: I’ll return to this later, intending to take the book with me on the UK trip. Note about the image: One of the Eighteen Arhats (or Luohan) depicted in Chinese Buddhism as the original followers of Gautama Buddha (arhat) who have followed the Noble Eightfold Path and attained the four stages of enlightenment. They have reached the state of Nirvana and are free of worldly cravings. They are charged to protect the Buddhist faith and to wait on earth for the coming of Maitreya, an enlightened Buddha prophesied to arrive on earth many millennia after Gautama Buddha’s death (parinirvana).