noticing

POSTCARD#381: Bangkok: Since my last post I had to miss the three day diet for one week, but starting again Wednesday August 19. The headache pattern has changed, headache all day and all night for 2 days last week. I haven’t had that kind of intensity for a long time. Today is ok (so far, so good). I’m trying a more directed meditation after reading again Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s Heartwood from the Bo Tree, the last section – the part where he talks about a neutral object neither pleasant nor unpleasant, agreeable or disagreeable:

“It is sufficient to observe one’s reactions at the times that we glance in the direction of some neutral form or other. Try casting your eyes on the door or a window and you’ll notice that there is merely contact (phassa), there are no feelings. of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. When visible forms, sounds, odors, flavors and tangible objects enter as contact let them stop there in the same way.”

Sitting quietly and the mind clears for a bit, noticing the sensation of the breath gently touching the inner nasal passages… noticing a non-object is noticing the noticing. There is the feeling I experience and this must be the same for everyone. Look out through the eyes and see the sky, the same blue sky everyone else is seeing because the physiological process of seeing the sky is the same for everyone. The consciousness that recognizes this sense of subjectivity is the same for me as it is for you and everyone, everywhere. Photo: UV fluorescence photography shows us how insects are looking at flowers with different criteria.

By noticing aspects of my own sensory process of noticing in the here-and-now, I can know how the people felt in ancient times, how they noticed and understood their world; the sky they looked at, and sounds they heard, fragrances they smelled, food tasted, surfaces touched and their mind responses. All of that is more or less the same for me now as it was for the ancient people then in their time.

“Buddhists refuse to accept perception as a self, though the average person does choose to accept it as such, clinging to it as “myself.” Close examination along Buddhist lines reveals that quite the opposite is the case. Perception is nobody’s self at all; it is simply a result of natural processes and nothing more.” [Ajahn Buddhadasa, ‘The Things We Cling To’]

The ‘me’ and ‘mine’ I experience is not different from the ‘me’ and ‘mine’ anyone else experienced in the past, or at this moment, or any time in the future. The body/mind organism that receives the experience of this ever-present sensory data through the Five Khandas, is the same for me as it is for everyone on the planet. Outer and inner are both parts of the One, the Same, Inseparable.

To notice a non-object (a neutral object) is to notice the noticing itself. To notice a non-object is to notice the motionless space in which everything exists. Context and content are an inseparable balance. Obsession with objects is the inevitable result of not noticing the non-object realm of spacious being. Noticing is different from acquiring. Noticing refers to what is already here. Acquiring refers to what is lacking and therefore sought. Noticing is an openness to what had previously been unseen. The wealth of space in this moment can be noticed and made conscious. In the flood of present wealth, the old compulsion to acquire loosens its grip. [The Endless Further]


 

 

bhavaṅga

POSTCARD#380: Bangkok: I’m in the 8th week of my diet – three days approx 1450 calories per day, followed by four days approx 1500 calories per day. Then back to the three days again. I’ve managed the change in eating patterns without too much difficulty. It’s the long hours between meals that are the hardest.

Looking at my state of mind during these times, one thing that helps in the mornings in coping with the contractions of the empty stomach, is the remains of my Nortriptyline night medicine for the (PHN) headache condition I live with, and those chemicals may be still active in the dopamine receptors… neurological technospeak. Later in the morning when that medicine wears off I start the Neurontin and that goes for the rest of the day.

So today, I’m noticing there haven’t been any serious headaches and it’s been like this these last few days which is unusual. Does it have something to do with the way I’m managing the headache with pain meds and the same meds help with the hunger pangs? What I’m saying is, the reciprocal nature of the thing means I’m learning how to tolerate the hunger pangs at the same time as tolerating the headaches. Just allowing it to happen and there’s no conscious memory of it being painful.

It requires a certain kind of meditational attitude and I do have that, spending typically many hours seated in my chair with laptop on my knees, arms on each arm rest, and feet flat on the floor. and what might be a yawning cavern of hunger is simply a light, floating sensation because I’m in that meditational state “bhavaṅga” (luminous mind). “Bhavaṅga” occurs when there is no active cognitive processes going on. I’m in my chair, mind focused on nothing, or the space between things and this is the preferred state; agreeable enough to overlook the discomfort, therefore allowing the hours to pass in a gentle introspective mood.

Looking back on this whole thing, although I’d read about bhavaṅga a long time ago, I simply stumbled upon the way to do it in these circumstances; noticing how the body reacts, responds, and the mind reveals there’s a slightly deeper awareness in here, dormant until something like the correct password is entered then it’s activated… and I don’t need to know the password of course. It’s enough to know that this is how it works.

All kinds of other difficulties however and this morning is particularly awkward because I have to go and see the Neurologist about the headaches, and I need to have a blood test done before the appointment. So they tell me I have to fast (take no food) before the blood test. It means I can’t have breakfast until after 11.30 am – four hours later than the usual breakfast time, and I cannot take my headache medicine on an empty stomach, so if a serious headache comes along, no medicinal relief… I have to put up with it.

A ‘self’ arises, comes into being full of anxiety and scenarios of distress, anger and outrage… so it’s not hard to understand that this embodied identity I call ‘me’ is just not helpful at all. No, thank you. I will not get into this, and drawing confidence from the reserve of underlying calm, I’m able to find that space before it happens, and wait there for a moment until bhavaṅga arises, then watching the in-breath, the out-breath…

When I got to the Out Patients, the blood test was done then into the sandwich shop and the feeding frenzy (I must have eaten more than the approx. 450 calorie limit per meal). After that there was the medicine, three capsules of forget-me-nots in their crinkly acetate enclosures with a couple of gulps of water from a bottle I carry with me. I noticed again, to be honest, there hadn’t been any strong headaches that whole morning.

In to see the neurologist and she asked me how I was, I said yes ok, told her about the diet, now 2 months and about the meds, just last week I noticed I was forgetting to take the Neurontin doses. So I thought I’d try to intentionally reduce the Neurontin and it was easy, no problem. Now I’m taking less than 3000 grams per day, reduced by nearly half, and there are headaches but I’m able to put up with it until it eases off and lessens intensity.

That’s how it feels, but I don’t yet have the words to describe it adequately. Pain Management of headaches aligned with hunger pangs due to dieting for nearly 2 months (weight loss: 12 kg = 26.4 pounds). Also something learned is that the bhavaṅga practice can alter perception which enables me to endure the all-round discomfort better than before.

 

doerless doing part 6b, editor’s notes

POSTCARD#378: Bangkok: This is the last part in the series of posts created from source material in “Heartwood from the Bo Tree” by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. It is a conclusion of sorts, although how this slim volume came to be with me and the events that go with it, is worthy of including.

I found the book again after 20 years of it being lost in a deep cupboard. Such a precious thing to have it leap into my hands again as if by magic. Maybe it got picked up along with the Nokia Phone Manual (that’s how long ago it was!) and got lost in the cupboard for two decades. Finding the book came with all the memories of how things were then, discovering Buddhism for the first time – although there was something déjà vu about it – and how it opened up an understanding in my world that had never happened before.

I arrived in Thailand in 1984 after 2 years in South India. I know I was reading something referenced to the Upanishads at the time and it had a big impact on me… but I can’t remember much more. I do remember ‘What The Buddha Taught’ by Walpole Rahula and it was in reading this that I decided (perhaps wrongly) the turn-around point was at tanha (craving)

All of it was triggered as a result of visits to Wat Pah Nanachat in the north of Thailand and Wat Suan Moke in the South, where I came upon Ajahn Buddhadasa’s book for the first time. Gratitude to the monks I met in these two Wats who helped me understand the subject in more detail.

Today, I have to admit that I can’t seem to bring grasping and clinging to a close at phassa (contact), or vedana (feeling), despite Gratitude and Respect for Ajahn Buddhadasa’s insistence that there is nothing worth having or being in this or any world. Feelings of like or dislike arise and the various kinds of desire that spring from the urges of tanha (craving) are with me until my escape route begins – just before upadana (clinging) sets in.

Another thing I need to say is the constant headache caused by PHN in the Right Occipital Nerve, that’s hindered me these last 5 years. Perception altered due to the struggle with pain and pain meds which always seem to be ‘more than enough’. I become lost in conditions where I’m in the midst of ‘being’; or I stumble and fall over objects that I currently ‘possess’. But I’ve learned how to let go when signs of suffering (dhukka) are arising – last minute relinquishments. The following paragraph illustrating the turn-around point in cognition at tanha (craving), found unpublished in some old notes I’m including here:

“Idleness, sort of a wide-awake sleepwalking around this empty house. Soon, I find myself in the kitchen, pause at the refrigerator, open the door, look inside. Well, let’s see, is there anything in here? Or better to say, is there something in here I can put in my mouth that’ll satisfy the craving? It has to be the right thing, looking for that which is exactly the right one, this craving is for something sweet but there’s nothing here at all that’s sweet, only cheese. So I grab the cheese, cut a large piece off and chew on that, have the flavor of cheese in my mouth for the next half hour. It’s not what I wanted. Now I’m craving for sweet things with the taste of cheese getting in the way.”

Maybe it’s just a matter of being situated in that ‘place’ of mindfulness in the here-and-now and that’s enough, observing how there are things that’ll displace, me; powerful emotions, a short flash of like or dislike. These mind states are ‘seen’ same as everything else, momentary, and let-go-of more or less immediately and stability returns.

If not, I lose my ‘place’ for a while and then before I get back on track, there’s that experience of being totally lost for a while. Then I get situated in the here-and-now again, focusing on where I lost the place. Suddenly I re-cognize something and see that I must be functioning in that remembered way, then firmly situated again. Okay, so the mind may fall into a fixation with a passing thought, but at least I know that’s where it’s been.

These days I’m thinking I need to move on from these old reference points in my old comfortable way of understanding the world. That is, if you can see where you are and are aware of suffering caused by tanha (the craving for things you love and hate), then that’s all there is to it. You see it, you know it. Avidya (ignorance) is swept aside, no matter how much these established views may be held or the tenacity of the habit to hold on, because suffering will pass away of its own accord:

“Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation.” “Of things that proceed from a cause – their cause the Tathagata has told. And also their cessation — Thus teaches the Great Ascetic.” [Venerable Assaji answers the question of Śāriputra the Wanderer]

I need to explore Sunyata “Emptiness” which Ajahn Buddhadasa examines in the second section of the book, where we see the truth that emptiness is the remainderless extinction of self. ‘The ‘remainderless extinction of ‘self’ is the non-arising of ‘self’’. In the long term I can see a situation whereby we prevent the arising of ‘self’ completely so that it has no way of arising at any moment in the here and now, nor at any time in the future.


Photo source: Dewdrop

meditation and a dentist’s drill

POSTCARD#368: Bangkok: Practically no traffic in Bangkok on my first day out – clear blue sky because there’s no pollution. I’m going to the dentist, and fortunate that I’m able to share in a car with two other friends and a driver, all of us wearing face masks, venturing out for the day. Wonderful to be back in the outside world and I send best wishes to blogging friends in the UK and US, who are stepping out today, as the car seems to leap across empty Thai highways.

Almost nothing of my UK ‘self’ remains. I have a sister, the other chick in the nest. Also gratitude to our cousin who tries to keep the strands of family together. The others… all gone in the passing years, and all that I’m inclined towards is in my Thai family and the monks I’ve spent time with – Theravada Buddhism Ajahn Chah lineage.

Eyes closed and everything disappears… allow it all to fall away for a meditational moment; just the in-breath, the out-breath, but I can’t continue because thoughts of the dentist come crashing into mind. You may be surprised to know however that she’s a very good-looking lady, dazzlingly perfect teeth to smile by, and this makes the pain easier to bear. Also, I have to say they are generous with the Lidocain needle there, I haven’t experienced any pain after the needle goes in during the many extended restructure sessions I’ve had in the chair. Maybe also the meds I take for headaches combine with the dental painkillers and these contribute to a painless experience.

So I get to the building, up in the elevator and check in with the receptionist. Sit for a while in an empty waiting area, thinking of my old dentist in Switzerland, 18 years ago, who told me about stress and depression among dentists, and he did have a few personality quirks. I googled the subject and found the suicide rate of dentists is more than twice the rate of the general population. September 1, 2007 Randy Lang. DDS, D.Ortho

Then I’m escorted to the dentist’s room. Undo my mask as I enter and “Hello, how are you”, greeting also the dentist’s assistant, who seems less beautiful but happy enough with the way things are.

The Dentist is absolutely stunning, dressed in her PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) she has a mask and a face guard with shower cap covering her hair. Movie-star painted eyes, but it’s the whole body covering that gets my attention; it’s clear smooth plastic, not wrinkled as we see in the busy COVID-19 wards, and… it looks like it’s been made to measure?

Beneath that is a tight fitting white plastic suit with a black belt and she’s wearing white high-heeled shoes – very high, with slender heels. A vision of dental loveliness… she sees me watching and does a little-girl twirl, I think: should I say “cute” or otherwise remark on her costume. But I can only smile and that’s convincing enough because I am genuinely surprised.

Are there any traces of a personality disorder here, I wonder, remembering the google texts about Stress in Dentists:

“When performing dental procedures that evoke patient fear and anxiety, dentists experience patterns of physiological stress responses that parallel the patient’s responses.”

Seems to me it would be hard not to, being so close, head to head with a reluctant and disinclined patient.

Another factor is people just don’t like going to the dentist, evidenced by the frequency of missed appointments. Nobody wants to visit the dentist and it’s the last place they want to come back to.

In my case it’s different, I’m in a mesmerized state. We continue with the opening pleasantries, as I sit down in the fearful chair which sinks to a lower level that raises my feet slightly higher than my head – it seems very comfortable to me and I tell the dentist this, thinking I have to be nice to this lady who may have a personality disorder, and she’s hiding a razor sharp drill somewhere which is going into my mouth – no escape now.

Her assistant covers my upper body with these heavy green hospital linen covers and puts one over my whole head that has a round hole in the centre. I found it disarming and claustrophobic the first time but I’m used to it now. She adjusts the position of the hole and does an examination of my mouth, indicates that it’s all good, and starts numerous injections to block off an entire area on the right side

After that, I’m raised up to the normal sitting position, while we wait for the Lidocain to numb the jaw. I take the conversation further by asking how long she’s had a dentist practice here in this location. She tells me it’s been 11 years and likes the process very much. Then she says: “I was in the US for five years”. I understand her to mean she studied there and prefers the American way of operating a dental practice, therefore the Thai way seems really old fashioned to her. I think she thinks I’m American and therefore I should respond in a welcoming, member-of-the-family, ‘warm hug’, in a manner of speaking but I don’t know how to do that, coming from Scotland as I do, ancient and remote. Even though I feel like I should have been able to respond better than I did.

Sometime later in the sequence of time we were talking about something else I can’t remember exactly and “I was in the US for five years”, she says, unaware that it’s the second time she’s said this. Is she, a Thai person, so deeply acculturated in all things American, she has to tell me about it? It was difficult to see how this could be, having lived in Thailand for 35 years with its ups and downs – 5 years seems like such a short time to me.

I wasn’t able to figure out how best to deal with this. A big smile will suffice – anyway it was time to get down to business and she sends my chair back into that devastating lower position, it seemed to me now, where the drilling begins.

No choice, settle into a space in my being, and try to accept these fierce sounds. The dentist’s drill is a fearsome thing as we all know. it can change from high speed: tee-ee tee-ee to low speed: bhrrr-bhrr bhrr-bhrr and variations on that: bhaaa-bhee, chugga chagga, daaa dit daaa dit daaa!

The dentist’s assistant takes charge of all the sucking devices she holds in place in a way that obstructs the movement of the tongue and drains the blood or liquid or water from another device crammed into place leaving enough space for the Hollywood dentist to do her drilling.

Everything to do with my mouth is seen through the round hole, I’m aware of some movements in the darkness. An overwhelming experience if you’re not used to it, now trying to embrace these intense sounds as my jaw is being carved into a new shape. There’s a natural tendency to escape from the body. Then the attempt at meditation starts.

The sound and vibration is hostile and shocking and pulls my attention back into what is immediately present, I can’t find a balance at first… I feel confident enough about the painkillers, about how effective the headache meds are, but the vibration is traveling through every bone in my body. It’s possible for the first time in my life to ‘see’, to be aware of my skull and skeleton. Maybe I can be confident about the full extent and the limitations of the experience; the drilling sounds, the pushing and tugging. I know this and I know Consciousness is vast. This realization just tumbles out. For a few moments the drilling sound and scale or scope of the issue becomes smaller and smaller, less and less important.

After that I’m able to find a place up and above my head and focus on staying there, as all the unexpected jabs, jerks and vibrations shake my whole body. The dentist’s assistant pulling on one side of my mouth and the dentist shoving and tugging the other side. My awareness has to include having to deal with the gag reflex and involuntary swallowing – all this can be going on because there’s enough awareness to go around. I can stay in this space up and above, and contemplate the experience as if I were in a barrel being tumbled down a rocky hill road, and other images.

The chair is moved up and the drilling is over, now to take an impression. Liquid rubber material is spread inside both upper and lower jaws. I clench my teeth together and have to hold it for 3 minutes. This provides me with a sudden quiet time… up and above in the space where I was meditating, there’s a golden glow. If I focus on it, the glow expands; it’s unintentional and spontaneous. The golden glow is sending out warmth and happiness, an entirely unintended action spreading outwards and everywhere.

Sadly it’s interrupted by the dentist, green covers removed, moving along now. Put the mask on, fix the next appointment, and it’s time to say Bye-Bye.

Down from the 6th floor and the driver is at the car-park level getting a stamp on his entry ticket. We pick up our two other passengers and out over the deserted highways again. I feel liberated and glad the next dental appointment is not for a month and the remains of the golden glow is with me.


The Thai Government reported three new coronavirus cases and no new deaths on Sunday, May 10, 2020 with a total of 2,969 coronavirus cases and 54 deaths since the outbreak began in January

COVID-19 Vesak Day 2020

POSTCARD#367: Bangkok: Falling asleep like a dark veil falls over my eyes; the transparency of a transitional state, a forgetfulness of holding on to things… an easing away, then it all falls backwards into space. It’s the best part of the day for me; that smooth slide into sleep. I take a mix of Norytriptiline and Remeron in very small amounts. It works like a sleeping pill, but is in fact a pain killer. The sleep aspect of the drugs is so good, I sometimes wake in the morning and the body is in the same position it was in, the night before – practically no movement during the night.

The rest of the 24 hour period is not so peaceful, a headache and dry mouth, like a hangover when I wake in the morning, of course not caused by alcohol because it is dangerous to take that with the other drugs on the menu. So, I do a set of simple asanas on the yoga mat next to the bed. Then the shower and things start to clear up with the first dose of the main drug after breakfast. There are times when the meds put the headache away completely for most of the day, and that’s good except for the cloudy brain, things not being clear. Other times the meds put it away only for an hour or so…. sometimes the meds don’t seem to work at all and the uncertainty of this is a huge challenge.

An example of contemplating physical pain with Wise Reflection is the Buddha – remembered today, May 6, 2020, Vesak Day. [click on the link for more info] The Buddha would have looked long and hard at his pain condition, as I do now after 5 years of the headache. It interests me and makes me happy to have this small insight into the Buddha’s pain. The same for all friends here in the blogging world who suffer permanent pain, orthopedic or neurological or both.

I listened to the Vesak Dhamma talk given by Ajahn Kalyano. Ajahn talked about the years the Buddha studied ascetic practices (self-induced pain), his body was skin and bone and eventually he abandoned this practice because the center of focus was now on the Kilesas (Defilements), Greed, Hatred, and Delusion (sounds like a heavy metal band). These three Kilesas can be sourced, analyzed and contemplated with Wise Reflection today.

Ajahn also said that it may be helpful to think of all the many and various aspects of the Kilesas as a virus embedded in the body and Mind – a suggestion that Covid-19 may be contemplated in this way. Lastly, Ajahn referred to the BBC 70s video of an interview with the King of Thailand Bhumibol Rama 9 who passed away October 13, 2016 – not so long ago. The interviewer asked if the King believed in Original Sin. The King replied no, he believed in Original Purity. Ajahn Kalyano said this was an insightful reference to the practice of contemplation of the Kilesas.

The past never gets old, always brought into present time, revealed again as an event remembered, with characters acting out the part as we recall it. It can be steps we take to be free of the old conditioning. It can be a memory or an image held in the mind refreshed over and over that gives us support in some way. An image of the Buddha, or Jesus, or Allah, or others…

The Buddha, when he was still a bodhisattva, considered the satisfaction in life, the misery and also the escape therefrom. We read in the Gradual Sayings (Book of the Threes, Chapter XI, par101, Before):

Then, monks, this occurred to me: That condition in the world owing to which pleasure arises, owing to which arises happiness,—that is the satisfaction in the world. That impermanence, that suffering, that changeability in the world,—that is the misery in the world. That restraint, that riddance of desire and passion in the world,—that is the escape therefrom.


Photo: Great Buddha Statue Bodh Gaya

 

the teaching of the Headache

POSTCARD#354: Chiang Mai: Arrived here on a morning flight, Business class upgrade on Jiab’s air miles, and wheelchair at both ends because I’m not steady on my feet after the stroke last year. Physiotherapy sessions help me understand (body & mind) the impact of it and how exactly, the stroke knocked me off my balance and now, how to get back on my feet again.

A learning process and also I need to remind the physiotherapy staff of these headaches I suffer from, triggered by the smallest thing. So, to cut a long story short, I foolishly pushed myself too hard in physiotherapy exercises and strained something which affected whatever nerve group it is that led to this current gigantic headache (Post Herpetic Neuralgia, right occipital nerve).

So that was it, the last physiotherapy session had left me with a headache, that night, the next morning too. No time for Jiab to change the date of the Chiang Mai tickets so that I could stay at home and go to bed. Instead, I had to pack the Headache in my luggage and into the airport taxi.

A soft journey to Chiang Mai, thanks to the upgrade. In the apartment we had all the windows open, only the screens between our interior and the clear mountain air. It helped me to sleep for the rest of that afternoon and night, through till the morning and the Headache was now into its second day.

One thing that helps is that I’m familiar with being a prisoner of the Headache, at the mercy of monstrous thinking. Even though I daydreamed in awful dark wakefulness, I meditated and contemplated this discomfort all the way through until the Headache was nearly over. Next morning it was gone… “gone is gone,” words cannot express.

We got everything done that had to be done. Impossible to do much more, too long spent in that nether-world of sleep crowded with images I wanted to get rid of. I found a book I studied years ago: ‘Abhidhamma in Daily Life’ by Nina van Gorkom’, quite readable even though the exploration of the Buddhist network of cittas (realities) is vast. Interconnected mental factors that are useful to study in order to understand how the mind functions. It’s referred to as Buddhist psychology.

In this volume I was fortunate to find a few aspects of the Buddha’s teaching, that related very much to the experience (the teaching) of the Headache. For example the word ‘wholesome’ (kusala citta): conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well-being. In the Buddhist dictionary, ‘kusala’ is explained as ‘kammically wholesome’, ‘salutary’, ‘morally good’, ‘skillful’ and ‘blamelessness’. Its opposite, ‘unwholesome’ (akusala citta) hence refers to the opposite – the ‘unwholesome’, ‘unskillful’, etc.

“Akusala citta is bound to arise more often than kusala citta because there have been countless akusala cittas in the past and thus the conditions for akusala have been accumulated. If there is no development of right understanding, akusala cannot be eradicated and we will continue to accumulate more akusala.”

There is that condition of mind where actions and thoughts take place as a result of automatic sensory responses. These states proliferate of their own accord, papanca. An opportunity arises here where I can escape from Akusala by seeing it for what it is, or I can be quite unaware of it…

Being unaware of it means unwholesome states arising from the Headache stimulate negative narratives (Akusala) and it becomes a story about ‘me’, attempting to assert myself; how am I to be seen in the eyes of my peers and others? Now it is so obviously Akusala imagery it’s easy to see there’s an opportunity here to leave it alone and let it all go.

Harder to see is the image of behaviour and speech seemingly agreeable and pleasant but what I really want to do is endear myself to others in the expectation of some gain or favour… multiple variations on this kind of thing; hard to see their realities – things are not always what they appear to be.

These are the kinds of images seen in the mind’s eye when extreme Akusala Citta is present, but I don’t have to have a three-day headache of course, to experience this, I can be quite conscious and wakeful whilst maintaining states of quiet anger or blaming.

So, how to escape from entanglements with Akusala? Mindfulness of the cittas as they arise, and through the development of insight the “escape” can be realized. Right understanding of realities eventually leads to freedom from all akusala, to the end of all sorrow.

The Buddha, when he was still a bodhisattva, considered the satisfaction in life, the misery and also the escape therefrom. We read in the Gradual Sayings (Book of the Threes, Chapter XI, par101, Before):

“Before my enlightenment, monks, this occurred to me: What, I wonder, is the satisfaction in the world, what is the misery in the world, what is the escape therefrom?

Then, monks, this occurred to me: That condition in the world owing to which pleasure arises, owing to which arises happiness,—that is the satisfaction in the world. That impermanence, that suffering, that changeability in the world,—that is the misery in the world. That restraint, that riddance of desire and passion in the world,—that is the escape therefrom…

  • Excerpts from: ‘Abhidhamma in Daily Life’ by Nina van Gorkom

addendum

POSTCARD#352: Bangkok: This is the addendum. Additional material not included in the previous post will appear here. Some have said that the last post ended inconclusively, leaving more questions than answers,

So let’s rethink that, shall we?

Keep it simple.

You could associate the jolt of electric charge with all kinds of things, but the patient (me) had suffered a small stroke. Nobody I know knows what a small stroke means, the scale of it. A sudden bolt of energy in the chest sounds like that could be it.

My wife Jiab calls out as I’m carrying bags to the car… “Hey you can walk so well now, congratulations!”… and I can’t remember the context of what she is talking about. For the first time I begin to see the larger reality of being elderly and disabled; then the reality of my condition before all this came, unlikely to go away or become something else.

Post Herpetic Neuralgia – certain light and sound frequencies that are acceptable for most people but intolerable for me.

So when we decided to take the show on the road, so to speak, there were a few precautions; we had the tint colour of the car windows darkened quite a bit. Now it’s like a car wearing sunglasses, very cool and relaxing. For stepping out of the car, we were less prepared. I expected it to be a bit of a shock with all the arbitrary light frequencies entering through the eye and shrill sounds enter through the ear. But not the scale of the headache and the circumstances of its arrival. We have to accept these realities in our effort to slowly create a practical defense system against the invasion of light and sound, and the internal systems that are activated as best we can.

We broke the journey at Samut Sakarn after 4 hours hard driving. It had not been easy with all these road construction obstacles. Park the car get your things and suddenly, I’m out there, exposed in high resolution Photoshop enhancement. I’m really a nocturnal owl-like creature, sheltering behind a black umbrella, squinting in the daylight; a quiet presence behind sunglasses contemplating vibhava tanha, (Buddhist term for the desire to not exist)… I really don’t want to be here.

I feel Jiab’s small hand take mine and pull me towards the small Inthanin.com coffee shop in a wooden shack with window and overhang roof. Up the step and fold away the umbrella. Then into this dark environment with noisy AC, roaring ice crushing machine and suddenly I have to block out the sound by covering my ears with hand towels. People watching us come in must have been puzzled by what was going on. I try to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Jiab’s hand appears with an iced drink. It’s a smoothie but no ordinary smoothie. This was the first time I’d experienced the mango passion fruit smoothie. To start with, I made the same mistake I’d been making that nearly turned me off of smoothies; I opened the mouth and throat completely to take in a huge volume of the ice-cold liquid. After a moment the liquid begins to move down the gastrointestinal tract and here the headache is constant steady and intense.

No escape, no reversals, there’s just no getting away from it. I’m holding on also because of traces of the mango passion fruit flavor I can release into the pain arena as the drama of the event subsides. For quite a long time I’m hovering through pain and pleasure, long after the source of the ice-cream headache is gone. Then I’m in a smoothie heaven – all this of course with eyes closed, a small towel over the front of my head, gradually coming back into the world people normally inhabit.

This is how it happened, you could say this was episode three on the way to the beach at Hua Hin… or maybe that’s all done now.

the imaginary middle step

POSTCARD#350: Bangkok: Note: I started to write this post on 6th July because it was my birthday. Pretty soon it came to be too much of a revelatory thing to suit a simple chorus of Happy Birthday To You, but this is how it is, we live in strange times.

Seems to me, that Mind makes up a reason for things being the way they are, arbitrarily. It just comes out of nowhere. The mysterious and slightly sinister thing about this is that I (self) allowed it to get to be this way, knowing fully it would lead to lamentation, woe and bad destinations.

I remember it was at the time I started writing things down on scraps of paper because of the hellish stabbing headaches I’d get when typing text on a digital device and the infernal twinkle of blasted light frequencies going off like a flash of lightning in an electric storm… a deep stab in the eye, exactly in the optic nerve. No warning. And that whole thing against a backdrop of a 24 hour managed ‘headache’ held together with a tight regime of powerful meds dealing with neuropathic pain.

So I went back to writing on ordinary paper with dull pencil. I had to learn to write properly after decades of scribbling reference numbers and OTP, one time passwords and that’s all. Then, as the non-digital me, keying it all in with plain black text on a white background, and up into WordPress formatting then hit Publish… but more about that some other time.

What I’m trying to write about here has to do with the arbitrary decision to take a particular action, regardless of the obvious danger that may result. It all went wrong when I found one of these scraps of paper and on it was written something like, say less than one sentence; a note to self.

“the standard walking pattern suggests another step between left and right… left foot (step) right foot.”

Like a magic formula, as soon as I read it I remembered, the image of the middle step. Walking was more like a bumpy three-legged rolling unicycle wheel. Reckless is not the word – wildly irresponsible, when you think of Bangkok traffic going at maximum speed just inches away from the pedestrian zone. We are all expected to take responsibility whether driving car, truck, motorbike or walking, and that’s just the way it works.

Somehow I bypassed these cautionary warning signs and set out to boldly go and try my balance all over the place, while learning how to best cope with this new middle leg I’d integrated. Then there were these spectacular falls in public places. Spectacular because I’d more or less worked out a recovery that included the same ‘middle step’. Note to self: This recovery was imaginary although nearly always there was a reasonable recovery. So it all seemed like a dance, no serious injury at all… then there was the ‘big one’ and that brought everything to a standstill.

For nearly a year I forgot completely about the middle step, and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t able to walk properly. It was that middle step that was causing balance problems and at the time I had no idea. The only safe place for me to walk was on the grass at public parks or airports where there is space all around. But I was bumping into people, besides it was not a ‘walk’ as we normally perceive ‘walking’. This was more like an imaginary Fred Astaire dance with the furniture than an attempt at walking. So someone suggested I get a wheelchair at airports and walk with a companion in ordinary environments.

Jiab says there is such a thing as occupational therapy where perhaps I can relearn those missing skills, so I will look into that. The biggest mystery is ‘the imaginary middle step’ and I’m referring to it now as something known, concrete, impossible. If I approach it obliquely I’m likely to wander off and fall in front of the traffic. Since finding that scrap of paper I notice anything to do with walking triggers the imaginary middle step.

 

painlessness & the twitch

POSTCARD#345: Bangkok: The continuing story of relief from the pain-in-the-head (H = headache) that’s been with me these last 3 years. Yes a time for celebration, but considering my threshold being as low as it is, therefore affected in a big way when even the smallest easing of pain arises, it’s more like being thankful for small mercies. I’m in a world of tiny calibrations these days, the vast Roller Coaster Ride of self medication is over.

Sunday 24th : I didn’t need to take the magic pill until afternoon because there was no serious H – another example of the state of painlessness is that I forgot to take the usual Neurontin dose in the afternoon because there really was no headache. So I’m still walking-on-air, in this pain-free zone I’ve been travelling through for a while.

25 March : This morning, 8 am, there was the usual dose of Neurontin, the H was still there so I waited to see how bad it was and at 10am, take the magic pill. By 11 am I had forgotten all about it – the headache was gone. 12.30pm: no sign of H. I take the usual dose of Neurontin and wait to see if the H will appear. No, nothing ‘till late afternoon, I take the magic pill and H is gone.

Tuesday 26th, I feel so good and empowered, I walk to the Skytrain station, approximately 1 kilometre and got the train downtown to Central Chidlom Food Hall, got all kinds of food items and back in a taxi with all the shopping.

27 March, 10 am: Felt liberated and free, same as the other days except in the late morning when the H started to arise and I had to take the old meds instead of the magic pill (at the Neurologist’s request). The H disappeared, but then came back again pretty quick in the afternoon. This does not bode well, I thought… waited to see how bad it was then took another dose of the old meds. Reasonably effective pain killer but not the same.

27 March, 7pm : A very bad pain started inside the left eye, a huge kind of rolling pain, occupying the whole interior of my head. Four or five rolls, the whole thing lasting around 1 minute from start to finish, tapering off at the end but feeling it was not really gone. I was glad it happened at home because I fell on to the bed and covered my head with pillows and moaning like an animal. Wow! I hadn’t had it that bad before. So I take the magic pill and after a few hours a second dose. The H is gone and, sorry Dr. Ms. Neurologist, that’s the end of your experiment.

28 March, 10 am : Walking to the Skytrain aware there’s pain in the head, stepping out carefully, gliding along as smooth as can be, trying to stay calm and see how it feels. I don’t want to stop and take a pill with swig of bottled water I keep in my bag because of the broad daylight, big wide pavement and so many well-dressed office staff coming and going. What to do? There’s a coffee shop up in the Skytrain station I can get something there and take the magic pill.

I go up the escalators until I’m 3 floors above street level, and the traffic noise, amplified by concrete and steel is incredible, hard to believe. Push open a green glass door with a small whoosh of cool air. Step inside, the door gently closes behind me… traffic noise is suddenly gone. Nearly all the seats are taken, Thai students studying for exams, grouped together at small tables. I feel I shouldn’t be there, the only foreigner in the place… ah well, maybe that’s cool.

I find a seat and order cinnamon tea. Open my bag, get the meds – fast hand-to-mouth movement followed by a quick gulp of water. That’s it done, Relief Coming Soon. Now, one last thing I haven’t mentioned yet, is ‘the twitch’, and I don’t mean the rock band named Nervous Twitch or the Gamers’ Twitch at twitch dot com, I mean ‘twitch’ as a neurological issue, caused by either the neuralgia I suffer from or the meds to treat the neuralgia.

Not a big deal, just a short, small, unexpected jerk in the arms usually or in the upper body, not the face thankfully. Maybe it’s becoming more noticeable, not sure. I’ve just gotten used to it now – but not used to having to cope with it in public. And I think you can guess what happens next; cinnamon tea arrives, elegant cup I lift carefully to the mouth, head inclines towards it, lips protrude slightly to receive the hot liquid… and just at that moment, there’s a really bad twitch. The cup is jerked out of its graceful passage, and cinnamon tea is splashed over the front of my shirt.

Wow, okay so I have deal with that now, hot wetness, dab-dab dabbing with folded tissue paper, here and there and all over the place, acting like it never happened. But after a while the shirt starts to dry out and you could hardly see the stain. So that’s what happened. I got up from that chair, no evidence of cinnamon tea stain, out into the traffic noise, and back into the state of painlessness.


 

wise discernment

If you find a good companion,

of integrity and wisdom,

you will overcome all dangers

in joyous and caring company

v.328

The mind, like water, takes on the shape of the vessel in which it is contained. The Teacher is encouraging us to be mindful of the company we keep. The Discourse on Great Blessings says, “Avoid the company of the foolish and associate yourself with the wise.” As we apply skilful discrimination, we need to exercise care that we don’t confuse prejudice with wise discernment. Wise discernment is compassionate and kind and is interested in protecting all beings from harm. [Dhammapada Reflections, Ajahn Munindo, p12]

This verse and commentary are meaningful to me because of having to place the word ‘discernment’ in the unusual setting of friends and friendship. In fact, discernment is a very Buddhist word. I think for a minute about the meaning of discernment and use that meaning of the word to investigate ‘discernment’ further; discerning on and on, deeper through the layers.

Wise discernment can also be applied to ongoing qualities of pain – my 24/7 headache caused by Post Herpetic Neuralgia (PHN) situated in the right occipital nerve. There are times when I know how to cope with it, and times when I don’t; and it’s here these words from the Buddhist realm reach me one way or another.

I’ve had it for 3 years and only recently able to shake off the depression;  I am the ‘headachee’ – the bell that is struck, the drum that beats. The neurologist got me round to seeing the sudden ‘spike’ headaches in terms of Severity, Frequency and Duration, units of measurement, instead of feeling sorry for myself; victimhood, a passive sufferer of constant headache. Now I keep notes, monitor the meds and put into words qualities of pain in my head… or is it discernment beyond words? Pursuing this to the end seems to make sense, besides there’s not much else that I can focus on these days.

At the end of last year, I was working with low doses of meds (Gabapentin,  Pregabalin and Norytriptaline ), in order to see the effects in a minimalist kind of self-research. Also to get stable after two years on a reckless maximum consumption drive, existing in a vague, pain-free haze every day. The following are some diary entries at the time [H: the headache]

  1. I learned so much from the pain now, anyone who’s gone through long term recovery from an injury will know what I’m saying about balancing the meds. My injury is very long term, a lifetime, plenty time to understand the process of recovery.
  2. The day I came to Outpatients for the appointment with ENT removing wax from the ears. After tolerating the pain and sound of the suction over and over and again, the self fragmented and got sucked away. What was left was empty space, no one to whom this was happening.
  3. However the terrible shrill noise had activated H; a massive steel grip tightening on the back of the skull bones. I couldn’t interrupt the doc as she had said I have to sit still. I was somehow transfixed. Suddenly there was this growling sound like an animal, and I was wondering where it was coming from. Then I realized it was me! The ENT Doc stopped the machine.
  4. I apologized for the animal noises and explained to the lady I have this massive headache every time she starts the machine. So she listened to me and we took a break then did another session that didn’t last long because of the involuntary growling again. The doc said it was enough, okay now, the eardrum was clear and that was that, end of the ENT sessions. I think she was glad to see me off.