finding the way out

POSTCARD #254: Bangkok: The story of it is I went downtown to a government hospital to see a well-known anesthesiologist, about the 24/7 headache I’ve had since September 2015, in the hope that, aside from more needles and what-have-you, ablation? I’d discover the right way to switch it off. And to cut a long story short – getting through all the underground labyrinths and corridors, crowds and noise and waiting 5 hours with my headache being as it is, although for the most part, staying with mindful attention – I was finally in a white room with her, dressed in white, and three residents in white too.

Blinking in this dazzling clarity, I was asked all kinds of questions I’d never been asked before. Really it was just one question she was asking me and that was, how far do you want to go with this? Like a fairy godmother, she gave me new, stronger meds, saying try this before getting into these other procedures and treatments. So yes, I went home, took the meds and suddenly the headache got switched off. Hooray!

Wake up next morning and the headache is back. Oh no! Take the new meds and it gets switched off again. Hooray! There have been other times when it has switched off like this, but now there’s definitely a feeling that something else has changed too. I’m feeling more optimistic than I have done for a long time, why?

And I begin to focus and see it’s because of a new kind of acceptance I learned about (indirectly?) from the lady in the white room. She was saying, in so many words, okay I admire you for the effort you’ve gone to in coming to this place, but realize that we’re getting down to worst case scenario levels here; this where we DESTROY THE NERVE and it’s done in two procedures…

But I wasn’t listening, I’d just bounced right out of there thinking maybe I can live without this ‘procedure’. No needles or RFAs (radiofrequency ablation), ‘a minimally invasive procedure.’ There’s this electric needle and it goes in and precisely zaps the nerve. If that doesn’t work then we can put in another needle… but no-no-no, I was running away in my mind, ok, ok, what other options are there?

So I was back where I started and it was giving me a headache just thinking about it! Acceptance, looking more carefully into the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth (nirodha); the realization we don’t have to remain stuck in an unsatisfactory state. Finding the way out of Suffering begins when we let go of the craving that feeds it. An easing of the suffering of mind that takes place by seeing it is caused by holding on to… whatever, the longing for impossible things. Yep, what is causing this? To see what it is I need to accept that it’s there, the giving way to it the frank actuality of it. That was an eye-opener. Finding the way out of the Suffering in the mind means seeing the cause for what it is, a complex attachment/ resistance tied up with the suffering itself. Unravel the knot let go of the whole dang thing, and that’s the way out.

What to do? Train the mind to live with the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth, and I’m better equipped to accept the headache being there. Or go and see the lady in the white room and her worst case scenario ‘procedures’.

“… suffering smashes to pieces the complacency of our normal fictions about reality, and forces us to become alive in a special sense—to see carefully, to feel deeply, to touch ourselves and our worlds in ways we have heretofore avoided. It has been said, and truly I think, that suffering is the first grace. In a special sense, suffering is almost a time of rejoicing, for it marks the birth of creative insight. [Ken Wilbur]


 

remainderless fading

SunrisePOSTCARD #216: New Delhi: The mind forgets. All the months of headache gone overnight. These days I wake up in the morning feeling normal again and I have to consciously remember what it was like before this, the billiard ball crashing around inside the skull whenever I moved. I understand how it works of course; an injection of anesthetizing agent into the root of the nerve and there’s no pain. It’s almost like it was never there, but the reprieve is for a limited time only. Two or three months then it’ll not be effective anymore and I have to go for the next injection.

This is the interval, the interim, a breathing space, and a time to reflect on how, for the most part, the body/mind organism has the capacity to heal itself. That built-in elasticity comes as a surprise, a kind of awakening. The true meaning of recovery. The Buddha’s Third Noble Truth (nirodha); the realization we don’t have to remain stuck in this unsatisfactory state. Suffering (dukkha) can be overcome when we let go the craving (tanha) that feeds it.

It is an easing of the suffering of mind caused by holding on to things that seemingly reinforces the belief in a small self inside ‘here’ directed by how the ego interprets sensory data received from the world out ‘there’ through the eye, ear, nose, tastes, feelings: nice or not nice, and how I feel about all of the above. Thus ‘I’ am this, or ‘I’ am that, according to what I like and what I don’t like. Neutrality is an option but it usually swings one way or the other in this state of duality.

Wanting things to be different, other than what they are, is the cause of endless dissatisfaction and profiteers’ goods and services have created an opening; phones, tablets and adult toys that hold the mind in this unhappy state. After the newness wears off there’s the seeking for this or that, not included in the current model. Clever advertising creates the perception of ‘me’ in a world of other beings preoccupied with devices that can render the ‘self’ as an actor ‘I’ choose to project to others; mind reflects upon itself in its own sense of being, is aware of its perception of itself as subject in its own blissful states. Other times seeking an escape from that world when things that were blissful turn bad with the same intensity, and the truth arises that all this is not real. How to get out?

It’s here that people wake up to the recognition it’s a dependency, but there is a way out of the sickness, no matter how much the marketeers pull us towards it. There is the natural elasticity in the knowledge it doesn’t have to be like this, true happiness and contentment are possible. Let go of that craving for more, allow for the far reaching concept of renunciation, relinquishment and release, the remainderless fading & cessation of suffering. Let it go and it all comes to an end, the way out of suffering and the Noble Eightfold Path.

“The main affliction of our modern civilization is that we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside us and we try to cover it up with all kinds of consumption.” [Thich Nhat Hanh]

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Header image: the library of Ajahn Vajiro
source of the quote above: Lou @ Zen Flash, “We don’t know how to suffer”
~ G R A T I T U D E ~

relinquishment

111120121545North India: Early morning light, people wrapped in shawls, long scarves bound around the head and tied under the chin. Dark faces, eyes looking out and they see me for an instant through the window – eye contact. I’m on a tourist bus, just passing through this small township, on the way to somewhere else. I think they see me as one of those who live in maya, not in the real world; living in a dream, and they might laugh to themselves; I’m naïve, dependent on support mechanisms that I pay for with an impossible wealth. It’s true; I’m in awe of them and, for me, their reality is unreachable. I don’t know anything about the actuality of their lives. My ongoing practice of  ‘self’ consciousness reflecting upon itself is maybe something that comes naturally to them.

Inside the dark interior of their houses, I see shadows moving in the dim light of old-style incandescent 25-watt bulbs in unsteady current, candles, oil lamps and small burning fires. Domestic items, pots and plates, carefully placed outside on the ground and I feel they should be inside. A pregnant woman glances at me for a momet with deep eyes and there’s something supernatural about it. I look away. The houses all look like they’re only partly built. Bare brick walls and there’s one incomplete upper floor, or some part of the house seemingly under construction. I ask the tour guide and she tells me it’s because you don’t have to pay tax if your house is still being built. These half-built houses are everywhere; a family living on the ground floor and upstairs bare brick walls reaching up like pillars with no roof, just the sky. There’s an underlying uneasiness about it all, it seems to me; inadequate shelter, no protection, and a fierce tenacity of holding on to life.

There are others in more hazardous circumstances, street people and those with no dwellings at all, the dispossessed. Beyond that the sadhus, bearded men with matted hair in yellow robes, white pigment smeared across the forehead, incense and candle-wax – hovering in a kind of other dimension – a living statement that all that is born, ends. It ceases. We die because we were born. That’s how it works. There’s birth and death in every moment. It’s so obvious, but I can’t see it.

I don’t want to see the cessation of anything; I want to hold on to what is good but it falls away to nothing and I start looking for something else to replace it. Chasing after things I want, and running away from other things I don’t want, creates the illusion that this is what life is about. I’m tossed around in the experience of having this, and rejecting that. And even the quiet space that just comes along by itself sometimes; the neutrality of neither this nor that – even in that place I’m dissatisfied. It’s a kind of nowhere thing.

I’m subject to praise and blame, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute, gain and loss [Eight Worldly Dhammas]. All I can do is react or respond; and I cannot seem to see that everything that happens now is the result of something that happened at some earlier time when I was reacting or responding, just as I’m doing now: vipaka-kamma, resultant kamma. This is what comes of it. And it’s so obvious, all I have to do is allow the cessation to take place but I can’t see it.

Dukkha, suffering is looking for certainty in something that is, by its very nature, uncertain; running from one thing to the next, looking and looking, and pretending the uncertainty is not there. The Ajahns say, stay with it until you see the cessation. Everything comes to an end. This is what it actually is… the letting-go of it, giving it all away, relinquishment….

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‘I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging; 
I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness; 
I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying; 
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become 
otherwise, will become separated from me.’ [From: The Five Subjects for Daily Recollection, Chanting Book]

Photo: From the Buddhist Sites Tour album

backstory

Iceland wave1Chiang Mai: Skype call from P in the North of Scotland, walking through a shopping mall interior, holding up his phone camera in front of him and I’m able to enter into a view of the world at this moment, about 5500 miles away. It feels like I’m really there; a chromium steel, tiled and glass environment with Starbucks and everything is recognizably ‘the mall’. People wearing scarves and hats, thick clothing – it’s below freezing outside that building. Light from the mall windows fading out to zero white, pixelated edges of electric blue and turquoise suggests air so cold it’s like an ice-cream headache, chilled nasal passageways and cranial cavities. I’m thinking of ice-rinks, peppermint and menthol. Words come out with vigour in great gusts of steamy vapour.

I lived there in a former life – long ago and far away. The sharp clear air, constant wind, and winter daylight lasts only a few hours; it was a world without colour. Cold, wet, windy and the mind is saying: ‘No, I don’t like this. I want sunshine, I want warmth,’ the samsara of wanting it to be different from how it is. And eyes looking through the gap between hat and scarf, out into the world but inwardly removed and seeing the sunshine in some fictional landscape created in the mind. I didn’t know anything about the Buddhist perspective on Suffering, dukkha nirodho ariya sacca, at that time, just ‘driven’ by a sadly dysfunctional family and nameless hunger that arises from the feeling that there has to be something better than this.

So, one thing led to another, and it’s a long story, but eventually I discovered it’s not ‘me’, it’s just the way it is. I can have loving-kindness, mettā, for the created ‘me’ and lighten up about that. I don’t get seriously into it any more, now there’s that distance from my constructed identity. It’s been with me all those years, wow, like something historical: ‘This is the house that Jack built.’ And now I’m here in South East Asia; not too hot at this time of year, warm like a Mediterranean summer; rubber slippers, shorts and a T-shirt. The quality of light is amazing, colours of things are outstanding, as if lit from within – a Disney cartoon – papaya fruit is an amazing fluorescent, magic-marker orange; green trees against blue skies and the whole thing feels like it’s been photo-shopped. The air is warm like a soft quilt cover wrapped around the shoulders, with no weight, so you feel this lightness – ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being ‘ by Milan Kundera, worth reading if only for the title.

But all this coming to an end very soon, less than a week to go before the time comes to go back to Delhi and the colder climatic conditions of the North. Not able to flop around in thin cotton clothing any longer… nope. This time next week I’ll be socked and shoed and trousered, and scarved and coated, hair-combed, passported and ticketed and transported to the North of India in a passenger jet, but that’s not happened yet so there’s time to reflect on that difference and get ready for the adjustment.

I’ve been living in other people’s countries for more than 30 years; met Jiab on the way. She still identifies with her Thai cultural context. I’ve nearly forgotten mine. I used to go back to the family home up there at the top of the world and most people couldn’t remember me; all the elders’ hair going grey, and greyer then white, Now I go there for funerals and people just don’t know me at all. I’m a foreigner there and a foreigner everywhere else. I’m more into the Thai world than any other culture – they see me as a kind of cultural hybrid.

There’s a shrine in Jiab’s family home; a structure of tiny ornate tables placed one on top of each other, in a hierarchy of size. The larger ones are at the bottom and smaller ones placed on top and even smaller ones placed on top of them. It’s built up to about five levels. An ascending, perspective effect as things recede above eye level with candles and an image of the Buddha on the topmost table. It’s the one where he’s protected by the hooded snake god Naga, extending Cobra neck hood and curved over the head of the Buddha forming a kind of umbrella (there was a rainstorm at the time of approaching enlightenment). Above that, framed on the wall, there’s a row of these faded old sepia photos of Jiab’s ancestors. There they all are, looking down at me. I feel their gaze because I’m not just a cultural hybrid in their eyes, I’m from a different planet too. I sometimes feel they need to look at me more carefully than they look at other visitors to the shrine. So I just let them do that, it’s a kindly gaze, without the burden of thought, comfortably dwelling in a state of wakefulness, and understanding things in their actuality.

P1030977

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Photo (upper) Iceland wave, Peter H. Photo (lower) Chinese temple BangPah-in, Elaine H

the way out

yak2Chiang Mai: 06.00hrs and it’s still yesterday in the West, internet is slow and unpredictable, busy with the millions of people over there wishing each other well for 2013, sending messages, sharing images, ‘liking’. World is populated with beings preoccupied with devices that can render the ‘self’ as an actor that ‘I’ choose to project to others; mind reflects upon itself in its own world, is aware of its perception of itself as subject in its own blissful states. Other times seeking to escape from the perceived emptiness surrounding the idea of ‘me’ being separate from the world; go that route and, in the end, there can only be an experience of total aloneness – it can’t be that way. But here, some people find God, superimpose a personification on that emptiness. Others just go along with it anyway, what else is there… we’re all on the road to nowhere, yes, I could be convinced, enough to comply with the economic system the politicians try to assure me is real even though I know it’s just based on a concept.

So, taking it on face value, like this I know the whole thing could so easily fall apart, it’s so very fragile but somehow it doesn’t – there’s that collective holding-on thing. The God mechanism is there whether I believe in it or not and I may go on being controlled by circumstances or I can decide to investigate, examine it. What’s going on here? I see everything in the world, through consciousness but I can’t see consciousness itself because I am that consciousness, there’s a subjectivity about everything. Then, when I see things and other people out there in the ‘world’, I’m suddenly an individual again, a self, separate from the world. ‘I’ engage with everything, subject to inherited kamma and actions create more kamma, mostly of no consequence, possibly laying foundation for another state of being at some future time? And from that ‘distant’ place, this place ‘here’ is seen in hindsight, as if it were a former life – this is how it began?

Why bother with beginnings, so distant and removed from this time and place. There’s only what there is now; no past and no future – time is a construct. I’m here situated in the East, 7 hours ahead of London, 12 hours ahead of New York, 15 hours ahead of San Francisco and then time measurements come to an end somewhere in the Pacific ocean, so it’s called a different day, of course. Continue in that direction and I return to the time zone I’m in now, except that, supposedly it’s the day before yesterday. It’s not, of course, it’s always the same day, only present time exists. Always present time and the way out of this puzzle is here, nirodha, Third Noble Truth.

“… the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving. (the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha) “— SN 56.11 (dukkha nirodho ariya sacca).

Daylight coming through the windows, I hear the monks chanting downstairs and go to the small balcony, to see. Down below there are about thirty people from the hotel opposite kneeling, receiving blessings for the New Year – and two large baskets of donated food, dāna generosity. Four monks in pale tangerine robes facing the small group and the sound of Pali verses created in the Buddha’s time 2600 years ago…

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– Best wishes for 2013 fellow bloggers and thank you for dropping by in 2012 –

Homer & the 1st Noble Truth

Switzerland: An old Simpsons episode appears out of nowhere, just as I’m beginning to despair here in the long journey through Central European TV channels; one end to the other, then back again. The samsara of television. So I do find something I can identify with in Homer’s world view, but afterwards, I notice, there’s this strange, unreal quality; the Simpsons effect. Everything else on TV seems changed and it takes some time for this altered perception to pass. The way I find to emerge from the ennui mind is through recognition of the Noble Truth of Suffering: dukkha, the characteristic ruminations of thought, same old thing, and I can just say: oh, that’s what it is, let it go and be done with it. But, how about poor old Homer? I wonder if the creators of the Simpsons ever properly considered that Homer might have a basic understanding of the Noble Truth of Suffering? It seems unkind if they didn’t. He’s so close to it but never quite gets there.

Whether it’s intended or not, Homer is at the very beginning of the spiritual search. He is pre-first Noble Truth, doesn’t know this is dukkha; he doesn’t know what it is. He hates it, he loves it, he’s indifferent to it, he is in denial. He’s so totally immersed in the experience of it, there’s just a dull glow of obscured awareness – enough to see that this is the fundamental human condition? Probably not, Homer is so busy ‘wanting’ things to be different from what they are, he doesn’t realise that this involvement with tanha craving/desire is exactly the reason he’s in the unpleasant situation he’s in.

He tries to see beyond desire and sees only more desire. The idea of ’giving up desire’ triggers the conditioning that desire is ‘bad’. It does stuff to Homer’s head. That’s why he got the idea inverted somehow and managed to explain it to himself that giving up desire is ‘bad’. This means he’s not able to see that (even if he did get it the right way round) we don’t give up desire because it’s ‘bad’, we give it up because it’s what’s causing the pain.

The possibility of release: 3. nirodha [there is a way out], and: 4. magga [this is how you do it], these things are not on his to-do list. Homer has the wrong idea, completely, but I have to remember he is a cartoon character – and I have to consciously remind myself about this. There is no ‘Homer’, there is no ‘self’, there is only the driving mechanism of craving and attachment. Homer can’t see it in this way because he’s conditioned to believe that if there’s desire, it must be happening to ‘somebody’ and that’s Homer. So, it looks like the way to go is to gratify that desire immediately, rather than stop and look at how it came to be like this.

Everyone would be very happy if the creators of Homer could get around to thinking about Homer’s predicament: what does it take for him to get closer to his desire urge and look at what’s really going on there? Without responding to the tugs and pulls, just observing, he’d see that the desire is there because it’s in the nature of desire to be like that. Homer’s curiosity, a dim glimmer of wisdom, is all it needs to clear away the ignorance – there is understanding and desire loosens the tenacity of its hold on him.

Accepting the Noble Truth of Suffering means he can let it go. He’s not confused by it or perplexed by the fact that he doesn’t know what’s wrong. He knows what it is. Knowledge displaces ignorance, so he can let it go. The difficulty of being bound up in difficulty is suddenly not there anymore. Instead there’s the familiar feeling that things are fine just as they are and something about this says to him there can be a profound awakening to the allrightness of just being in the moment.

This small glimpse of the innate quality of peace all beings share might be enough for Homer to seek the Path to Liberation.

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‘The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism, that there is suffering in life, was enormously important to me. No one had ever said it out loud. That had been my experience, of course, but no one had ever talked about it. I didn’t know what to do with all the fear and emotions within, and here was the Buddha saying this truth right out loud. I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t weird, and I didn’t have to feel isolated. For the first time I didn’t feel so utterly alone, like I had a shameful secret…. Then I learned the next three noble truths – I could do something about the suffering. I could change how I dealt with it. I could approach my pain with compassion instead of bitterness, in community rather than isolation. I could change my relationship to pleasure. The Buddha offered a very simple, pragmatic tool — meditation – to transform one’s relationship to everything.’ [Sharon Salzberg, except from an interview in Huffington Post Aug 30 2012]