lonesome highway 2

POSTCARD#396: Bangkok: [Reblog from September 3, 2013]: Travelling along the highway to the airport in a taxi that has past its best – seen better days. It’s veering off to the left, trembles for a moment then corrects itself. There’s another problem, the driver has it revved-up because the engine stalls when we slow down, so the sound is a bit alarming. We stop at the toll way to pay the fee, engine stalls, driver gets out to push. Fortunately there’s a little slope down at the tollbooth and the car moves forward easily. Driver jumps in, ignition on, and the engine comes to life. Big sigh of relief, driver apologizes to me: koh tod khrap, polite. A nice guy, just trying to earn a living with a vehicle that’s barely roadworthy. The Thai compassion for this kind of predicament means it’s tolerated more than it would be in other Asian countries.

In a moment we’re accelerating down the road again with this huge noise and there’s still about 20 km to go. I’m thinking that if the engine fails, we’ll have to stop at the edge of this long and lonesome elevated highway with nothing around except sky up above… this really is the middle of nowhere. I drop into a state of alertness; being mindful is exhilarating, the inclination to be awake, watchful. All senses switched on, an awareness that sees also, at the edge of this, some anxiety – the Buddhist term: samvega pasada describes it – a sense of urgency. There’s clarity too, even though things are not looking good at all.

It’s like a death, we might just end up stopping at some place on the road, anywhere’ll do and that’s it, engine is gone. Nothing extraordinary about death; we die and come to life again from one moment to the next. Physical death comes along and instead of coming to life in another moment, we find ourselves in another lifetime. This is how it is, according to what I’ve read, and it could be time’s up for our taxi, it’ll die anytime now. Worst case scenario is waiting in the heat of the tarmac with no air-con running because there’s no engine and hoping another taxi will come along – unlikely… empty taxis don’t normally go out to the airport. What to do? Ah well, miss the flight, I suppose, go tomorrow – yes, but I’m getting ahead of myself here, it hasn’t happened yet.

In the end, the taxi holds on to life and we arrive at the airport okay. Get the bags out of the car with engine still racing and the last I see is the driver heading off in the direction of Arrivals; hoping he’ll pick up another passenger and make it back to the city again. I wheel my luggage into the cool airport and go look for the check-in row. Doorstep to the world.

“Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.” [Thanissaro Bhikkhu]


the mind state of contentment and wonder

POSTCARD#393: Bangkok: Last week I wrote about Contentment and Restlessness – there’s a lot to be said about contentment, in view of these last few days counting votes and sometimes the atmosphere heavy with suffering. This is how things are, it begins with impatience, and we start to get fired up in a negative, critical mind state. At any time, Trump slices into the moment with outrageous accusations, the latest in a litany of attacks. No rest for the mind, active thinking, the thinking ‘thing’ itself, sees the world in a bleak unforgiving way, and the word ’contentment’ doesn’t fit in the vocabulary of a restlessness mind, falling over itself in the search of something else to feel negative about, somewhere else to go.

Why is contentment so hard to find? It’s not about being in a state of contentment all the time, it’s about being content enough with the state of things as they are at this moment. A few deep in-breath/out-breaths will get me there and I start to create order in the small objects all around. I examine each part of my movements and slowly joyful awareness takes the place of the harsh interchange of the restless mind. Piece by piece I can start to step into the context of mindfulness in the world of contentment.

I’ve been watching the vote-counting on CNN from here in Bangkok and not familiar with the way they do things in this kind of news program. But it seems to me, if you want to have a restless mind, right now CNN is the place to be… suffering endures. (all the more reason to switch off the noise and find some ease from time to time). The counting of votes has been going on through the nights and into the days, while ongoing CNN discussions center on hypothetical projections that predict the winners before they finish counting the votes, and what the variables are that could change the state of play. It gives me a headache just to think about it! At any time the percentages of votes for each candidate could go spiraling up or spinning down. And that was the ‘roller-coaster’ ride we were on.

At the start, it was a huge disappointment for Democrats that the anticipated “big blue wave” never happened – hope went right out the window… with it went the prospects of black people, the unresolved pain of Black Lives Matter – they were hurting. All of us were, except the Republicans who were seeing a surge of popular vote, or so it seemed. Their numbers started to flood in, higher than ever before, and quite early into the counting, Trump announced he was the winner and the counting had to stop… even though there were hundreds of thousand of votes yet to be counted.

Typical Trump, I search in my mind for what the Buddha might say about this, with a focus on Doubt [Vicikicchā]. I can overcome doubt by ‘gathering clear instructions, and having a good map, in order to find the subtle landmarks’ in these hostile surroundings. There are so many detailed ancient writings on the mind in whatever state, I have to find something awesome that is easily understood on a vast scale:

“In his exposition of the contemplation of the state of mind, the Buddha mentions sixteen kinds of mental states to be noted: the mind with lust, the mind without lust, the mind with aversion, the mind without aversion, the mind with delusion, the mind without delusion, the cramped mind, the scattered mind, the developed mind, the undeveloped mind, the surpassable mind, the unsurpassable mind, the concentrated mind, the unconcentrated mind, the freed mind, the un-freed mind.

It is not identified with as “I” or “mine,” not taken as a self or as something belonging to a self. Whether it is a pure state of mind or a defiled state, a lofty state or a low one, there should be no elation or dejection, only a clear recognition of the state. The state is simply noted, then allowed to pass without clinging to the desired ones or resenting the undesired ones.” [Right Mindfulness, Satipatthana Sutta]

It helps of course if we can release the hold we have on Self for a moment. There’s no abiding self that does it all. The mind is not a lasting subject of thought, feeling, and volition, rather it is a sequence of momentary mental acts, each distinct and discrete, their connections with one another causal rather than substantial.

As the CNN broadcast was going on day after day, I was thrown into doubt many times, the sickness of being ensnared in the Trump trap with Trumpists calling out ‘voter fraud’. A scary time, we were propelled into a possible Biden Presidential success. Down the narrow end of the telescope, in sudden rush to the final countdown but we hadn’t arrived yet! Held in the inevitability of circumstances… surrounded by accusing Trumpists voices and their conspiracy theories.

Despite the hostility, I remained relatively unscathed. So good to have access to the mind state of contentment and wonder. I can breathe deeply and long. All these millions and hundreds of thousands of individual persons cast their votes, they’re counted and placed together in identifiable groups, and the vastness of it all without a Self.

Language is the metaphor, just in itself. Mysteriously incidental meanings arise of their own accord as if they’d been consciously created, contained by this form… it’s just like that. Everything made-to-measure, more or less exactly. We live in a bespoke world. Everything seemingly custom-built, social behaviour, language, there isn’t anything that’s not constructed.

Donald Trump is a noisy litigious being, capable of criminal acts. His threatening voice slices into my mind; Trumpist voices accuse us of hidden manipulating of the final countdown. At one point everything was hanging in the balance; it’s 2020 a double-double Georgia 49.4 and 49.4 waiting for the vote-counting lady to say which way it would go. Oh-no! I’m feeling sick again, an ache in the gut. Where is my contentment, the antidote to a restless mind? It’s within me, deep breathing ‘breathe in slow-ly, breathe out lo-ng. I left the broadcast with four states remaining, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona.  I see from this morning it looks good for Biden. The counting goes on and I am just so relieved we are in this world!



POSTCARD#387: Bangkok: The headache is here and dizzy with the meds but a sense of self-congratulatory shaking of hands. This is the third day of the fast, now into15 weeks, the last day of the three day régime. I feel extraordinarily ravenous. A fierce hunger and gnawing in the innards, an outrageous voraciousness like the yellow red flames burning in the fire that’s suddenly gone in a moment (drenched in a rainstorm)… I choose to search for the lightness instead, reach outwards for the weightlessness, I have an affinity with effects that are unassuming and uninhabited.

I am not a substantial thing… sometimes not here at all, curiously adrift in some future time. A place of speculative conjecture and hypothetical likelihoods. The constant sweeping along of things brings me back to a recognition of the place of alertness, the emptiness of the moment; the sound of the ceiling fan, the movement of the air. There’s skin, hair; there are arms, legs, a head and eyes, ears, nose and tongue. I am a sensory-receptive organism. Just the warm air in my face and time rushing by.

It’s birth in the Buddhist sense jati: the I-am-here thing. It’s sometimes an uncomfortable, driven, locked-in state that arises through examining an event, and returning to it again and again, simply because I’m so used to seeing the situation from this perspective of holding on to it, I expect it to be the same starting point of my meanderings every time.

Mindfulness of this unaware habituality. Knowing it’s like this means ignorance (not knowing) is gone. I enter the space knowingly, intervention in the probability sequence. Instead of the intensity of mind, there’s just the intensity… a tightness of posture – maybe that’s how it started – relax the neck, the forehead. No thought associated with it. No goals to which I’m compelled to strive for; what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve for. Undoing all the knots tied in memory, letting the mind untangle itself from the problem: good, bad, whatever. Letting it all go, giving it room.

“All we know of a thought is the experience of thinking, all we know of a sensation is the experience of sensing, all we know of a sight is the experiencing of seeing, all we know of a sound is the experience of hearing…. And all that is known of thinking, sensing, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling is the knowing of them. And what is it that knows this knowing? Only something that itself has the capacity to know could know anything. So it is knowing that knows knowing.” [Rupert Spira]

This post contains excerpts of other posts I’m gathering together like stringing coloured beads on a necklace.


mindfulness of pain, part 2

POSTCARD#338: Chiang Mai: Now three months since the event in November of last year, and the recovery from that blow to the centre of the chest, delivered like a heavyweight boxer’s punch – devastating. This is what it felt like. What happened was, around 9pm I was going through the crowds on Nimanheman Road with my Thai niece M, in the almost daylight brightness of studio lights suitable for taking selfies out on the street I suppose. Flashing illuminations distracted me and I stumbled on something in the darkness of a shadowy stretch of unsurfaced sidewalk, lost my balance and fell forward like a tree is felled in the forest. Broke a rib somehow, but the main thing was, I did something to the sternum, (the sternum is that vertical bone in the centre of the chest). This bone took the impact of the fall – I fell diagonally on a concrete step, hands held out to break the fall, but as the floor comes rushing up to meet me, it’s the step that takes the weight BANG!

I’m face-down on the step – small Asian hands reach out to help me get up. M leans forward and says in my ear, “Toong Ting, do you want me to call an ambulance?” I tell her I’m okay, (so practical, M is. She is 14 now and dyed her hair canary yellow, but that’s another story). Also thank you and smiling to all these kind people (note: real concern, anxious faces), more hands held out to help me get back to where I once belonged… the realm of all upright, upstanding, decent, and respectable persons.

What does this look like? Old guy with wispy white beard sinks down in the crowd, has a stroke or something? Falls on the rough un-surfaced sidewalk. No, no, I’m okay, just tripped, slipped, tumbled, stumbled, fumbled? I’ll be allright, thanks for your help, it’s okay – I’m getting some of their anxiety. Best stand up, no matter how inviting that unsurfaced sidewalk looks like a nice place to lie down and get comfortable. No, no, and I start moving around, to reassure everyone that this old guy escaped the clutches of gravity once again.

We made it back to the apartment without me feeling any pain, but next day the agony in the chest was something to behold. The breath-taking scale of it… just turning over in bed would throw me into a trauma of panic, difficult to find the way out of. Ordinary things, like getting up from the sitting position were so overwhelming I’d stay seated for most part of the day.

Meditation was/is a necessity, I had to develop skills fast for this 24 hour, no-choice pain situation. Almost always at night, when sleep would find me seeking a position or a place somewhere, somehow, something bearing the characteristics of rest, and following the pathways leading to a comfortable place to be in, to inhabit for a few hours and the easefulness of that, but not to dwindle there or linger too long, lest it becomes something impossible to extricate myself from – all these tugs and pulls that mindfulness uses to remind us where the Path leads.

Then as far as possible, a quiet investigation into the pain, and the reaction to it, again and again. Contemplation over the breath-taking scale of it; what to do? not much more than that, but by the end of January, I came out of it with a greater awareness of this part of the body… in the East it’s the Chit, the heart, the mind. The idea that identity was situated in the Brain didn’t make sense at all

What’s happening to me? Examining the X-ray of the broken rib I could see all the other broken ribs fused together any old way (this is how they mend themselves), bits sticking up where there shouldn’t be, and seen so clearly because they’re all on the same side of the body. Four broken ribs which occurred separately are all on the left side?

What kind of karma could this be; the ribs, the blow to the center of the chest, and the long surgical scar in the abdomen where a Thai surgeon removed two cancer tumors in the colon more than twenty years ago, and lastly, my Post Herpetic Neuralgia in the right occipital nerve, feels like a blow to the head, never gets better, a permanent headache. It’s all just so intrusive, so violent, how can this be? As far as personalities go, I’d say and others would agree, I’m not a violent person! Doesn’t make sense, karma like this is surely irredeemable!

Ajahn Vajiro was passing through town the other day so we met him at the airport and I asked him about these traumatic circumstances, and what to make of this strange karmic outcome? He shook his head saying, never mind about that, get back to the one who knows. In Thai it’s poo roo (poo: person, roo(v): to know.

Examples: poo ying: lady, poo chai: man.

You could say poo roo is the higher self, except that it’s a personification, which brings us back to the subject/object divide. What was meaningful for me was how Ajahn began articulate the blessings the Four Brahma-Viharas, while explaining the quality and meaning of the words:

1) Goodwill / Metta, Loving kindness.

2) Karuna / Compassion, is what goodwill feels when it encounters suffering: it wants the suffering to stop.

3) Mudita / Empathetic joy), what goodwill feels when it encounters happiness.

4) Upekkha / Equanimity)

The acoustics of Ajahn Vajiro’s words still remain in present time, everything about who I am, disappears for an instant and there’s only awareness. I experience this awareness physically, in the centre of the chest, spreading out to the shoulders. In Pali it’s citta, the heart. Felt exactly in the same place where the huge punch in the chest happened… curious and strange, best left alone, unsaid, unexamined, and questions unanswered do not create the subject/object divide. Thought and language are the apps, while awareness is the operating system. It comes before anything else, here in the centre of my being.

Awareness precedes thought. As soon as I think about it, the whole thing becomes duality, subject/object. This time, I’m inclined to take it further, and that awareness (object) is ‘me’ (subject), ‘self’. This ‘self’ says it’s ‘my’ awareness, ‘I’ am the subject of awareness. But when this ‘self’ that I believe to be ‘me’, starts to look for the ‘me’ that possesses awareness, it finds that it’s the other way round: awareness has to first start looking for the ‘me’ (and the ‘me’ can’t be found).

There are many ways that this metaphor can be constructed. Please let me know how it looks in the comment box.


the karma of getting there

POSTCARD#304: Chiang Mai : 7am: The sound of a text message wakes me; Jiab arrived in Bangkok. Overnight flight from Delhi – and… what’s this? “Have you ordered a taxi yet?” Hmm? Taxi? What day is it? Oh no! I’m leaving today, not tomorrow… a flash of movement, brush teeth, shower, fling clothes in bag… quick tidy-up of rooms, swallow a headache pill, into taxi and it’s a struggle to stop the rushing and bumping into things in my head, breathe slow and deep and just let the driver take me to the airport.

Okay for time, as long as nothing untoward takes place, like what happened on the way to the airport once, in a taxi stuck in a long line of cars. A very strong smell of something like an omelet… what’s going on? We get to the obstruction, a collision of some sort involving a pickup truck filled to the maximum with trays of eggs… broken eggs everywhere, egg shells floating in puddles of egg all over the road surface. The egg-man in the middle of the sea of raw eggs sitting on the edge of his truck, head in hands.

Reminds me I have my headache to think about, and how best to manage that having swallowed a pill before breakfast – slightly dizzy, just to make things worse. We are at the airport, and embark on the karma of this route; the directional momentum through escalators, corridors, doorways – catch a glimpse of other people in their karmic paths. I enter and exit enclosed airport spaces that contain me in their capacity for a moment then I’m gone. Passing through other portals, and down the narrow tube that brings me to my small seat area, looking out through the window, under the blue dome of sky, pink-white heavenly clouds: at 35,000 feet and this is your captain speaking, we are now descending to Bangkok where the weather is sunny and bright with a temperature of 34° Centigrade and 94° Fahrenheit.

I feel stretched, part of me is 367 miles away, back at the condo in Chiang Mai having breakfast and listening to the birds interrupt the silence. Another part of me is gone with M, to New Zealand. M is my Thai niece now aged 14. She looks like a miniature adult. It was the day before yesterday, I went with her to the airport, we all had lunch, me and M and her mum and after that, I’m in the back seat with M, bags everywhere, a leisurely drive to the airport, laughing and chatting.

Suddenly mummy says something in Thai about a passport, M replies, saying she doesn’t have it! Car swerves across the highway, U-turn at the next opening and we are headed back the way we came. Mummy driving like a mad person, steering with one hand on the wheel, and with the other, calling the teacher who is going with the kids to New Zealand to say sorry M might be a little late.

So we got there, Mummy runs into the house to get the passport and while she’s away, M says to me quietly that they had to leave their house that morning exactly at the auspicious time given them by a ‘holy’ person, and mummy forgot the passport then, because she was too busy with getting the exact time precisely  right.

Enough said about that, another wild race back to the airport. Meeting the others and it all ended well, M waved to me at departures, went to New Zealand and took a part of me with her.

It’s the karma of getting there, I’m just mindfully aware of the direction and being propelled through the portals and gateways: this and then that, and the next thing. Some people, burdened with their superstitions for better, for worse need to be blessed by the holy person – and I suppose some would regard the egg-man as an example of someone who should have gone to receive the blessing but he didn’t and there you are.

There are the waves and there is the wind, seen and unseen forces. Everyone has these same elements in their lives, the seen and unseen, karma and free will. [Kuan Yin]



IMG_0500POSTCARD#44: Chiang Mai: Time to close this chapter of the story. I’m leaving soon for New Delhi, transit in Bangkok for some days. The flight departs at 16.20 and before that there are things to do in the apartment: a basket of laundry to iron; ironing table set up and I’m standing there. Pointed end of the iron smoothens its way among the creases, sailing through mountains and valleys of fragrant laundered cloth, leaving a warm, flat plain of patterned textile in its wake. Place the heavy iron on its metal stand and there’s that pleasing little sound: clink-clink… then pick it up again to do another part of the garment. Doing the front, the back, the shoulders, the collar – place it on its stand again: clink-clink. Ironing is such a peaceful thing, the hot smoothness of it, all these landscapes of wrinkled cotton eased away.

Pictures unfold in the mind, a memory appears, the story begins. It’s wintertime, I’m in Kamakura, Japan, snow everywhere and the colourless luminosity of reflected light inside the dark interior of my cute little house (everything is small in Japan) high up on the slope of a hill, in the precincts of Zuisenji temple. The ironing table set up by the window; just enough room if I move carefully, laundry basket placed at hand and on the corner of a small table, a pile of folded ironed things. The brightness of reflected light outside illuminates what I’m doing. A time of sleepy afternoon days, the clink-clink sound of the iron at intervals intrudes gently into this comfortable silence.

There’s a small slooshing sound of someone walking through the snow – look out the window; a blinding whiteness, a photographic negative. Black tracks of footsteps on the path leading to the steps to the temple. It’s a lady walking with great care, taking smaller steps than Japanese ladies usually take. She is dressed in a long dark maroon coat and indigo coloured costume down to the ankles, feet in wooden geta slippers secured by a small V-shaped thong passing between the first and second toe over tabi, white stockings specially stitched for the purpose, and the entire foot encased in transparent galoshes with pretty floral designs. Holding her hand is a little girl about 8 years old, and it just happens that as I’m looking at the girl and her small white face, alert eyes, she turns to look at me… a faint smile, a moment of intelligent understanding; she sees me, a gaijin, framed in my window at eye level with the street: a foreigner lives there, in a house the same as ours… or maybe there are no words for it, just some kind of recognition, an enigma suddenly cleared away and knowing this.

How did life turn out for her? I feel sad that we only had the shared experience for that instant. Maybe it’s the remembering of events like these, returning many years later; a moment recalled, a thing that was puzzling for a long time suddenly understood, somehow – beyond words. These small moments of understanding, overlapping each other and it could be the more I’m aware of it, the more conscious experience includes the possibility of revelation. And this is the reason why there’s always a fascination with the remembered moment; an event or an accumulation of events that make sense… somehow. Language doesn’t stretch that far; the whole thing just carries meaning.

Ironing along the seams, the waistband, how good these garments look, just as they are, stitched art objects – clink-clink goes the iron. Pictures unfolding in the mind, a memory of an event is a story with a beginning, a middle, an end – although I might arrive in the middle and have to work it out from that entry point; searching for the ending of it so that I have some idea of what the beginning could have been – then re-order it so the story starts as it should (“… once upon a time….”). Language insists on a structure, I have to ‘story’ it (verb: to story), think about how to get it to work; what happened after that? Create a sequence of events. Listening to a story I’m telling myself as if it were being told to me by someone else.

Getting this place cleared up and ready now so that it can enfold itself quietly in hibernation while I’m away living in another world. Soon it’ll be time to jump into the taxi and off…

‘We are forever telling stories about ourselves. In telling these self-stories to others we may, for most purposes, be said to be performing straightforward narrative actions. In saying that we also tell them to ourselves, however, we are enclosing one story within another. This is the story that there is a self to tell something to, a someone else serving as an audience who is oneself or one’s self…. On this view the self is a telling.’ [Roy Schafer]


where there is no christmas

IMG_0164POSTCARD #34: Bangkok: No snow here, of course, winter is just a slight coolness that happens once a year. It lasts about a week. There’s no Christmas either because it’s a Buddhist country. I am the only thing resembling a real christmasee here. Christians in Thailand amount to 0.7% of the population. Yet there are Christmas carols playing in all the malls, and also in the supermarket where I was this morning: ‘… the ho-lee bible says, mary’s boy-child, jee-sus christ, was born on christ-mas daaay…’ twirling around the fruit and vegetables and frozen food section. Gift-giving as purchasing incentive, the season of goodwill has a place here even though the population are 95% Buddhist, 4% Moslem. Thai society is joyful, they like to share everything. They like playfulness – the word in Thai is sanuk (fun), everything has to be sanuk and if it’s not, it’s mai sanuk (seriously boring) and that’s bad style. I was downtown yesterday, saw the yellow duck wearing sunglasses stuck on the red taxi, took the photo. The Thais recognise the 25th December as a happy event but it’s also an ordinary day. People go to work, government offices are open, mail gets delivered, transport systems are normal, it’s all open for business, same as usual.

Heavy rain last night woke me up, and the room is cold this morning. Don’t need any fans, no air conditioning and without the slightly deafening sound of these machines it’s strangely quiet in the house. I’m noticing noises coming from the neighbours; a clatter of sounds enters through the open windows. Screen door opens, and there’s an interval of time to allow someone to enter, then screen door closes again. I get up to see who came in… but there’s nobody there, it’s not this house – it must be the house next door. Somebody else’s cutlery; plates go clink, voices echoing off the tiled floor and cement plaster walls… in which house? A dog barks, a child cries; it feels like everybody out there is in here.

I can feel chilled air in my ears; in the tiny inner surface of the eardrum. There’s a coolness in nasal passageways, emptiness of mouth cavity, tongue stuck in the wetness of the upper palate. The surface of the eye is cold. The body is a sensory organism in the environment of this room; four walls, the ceiling. The smooth wall surfaces holding the enclosed space like a 3 dimensional photographic negative of the room. The shape of motionless space within which things exists. Open the door and the volume of the room escapes. This is how it was when the sound of the rain woke me up this morning in the darkness. I went to sit on the cushion and the whole thing suddenly came crashing into consciousness as if it had been waiting all night for me to wake up.

‘… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.’ [Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet #4]


seeing with alertness


POSTCARD #29 Delhi: Large birds of prey slowly circling above; they make a sound like the mewing of cats. I’m on the roof terrace, watching them. They’ve seen something and I’m curious to see if I’ll witness the dramatic plunge to Earth to catch the prey. Reminds me of a time I was in Pondicherry, South India, walking through a quiet district in the French-speaking Tamil part of town. Not much going on, turn a corner and on the other side of the path there’s this mother hen fussing around agitatedly with her brood of little chicks: chee-eep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep. And the hen is making loud cluck-cluck, cluck-cluck noises, strutting around, strangely fast, unusual body movements; it was like a dance – didn’t look right somehow. The mother hen was dashing about and jumping backwards and forewards and the little chicks were falling over themselves trying to keep up with her. Wow, what is going on here? I stopped to watch.

Then suddenly there was this huge SWOOP down from above. A movement of the air and a large bird of prey with outstretched talons ‘falling’ from sky to earth in a great wide arc; at its widest point, so near to the ground, going at a tremendous speed. I saw it further down the road sailing back upwards in the momentum of its fall, and up in this large curve then winging it’s way back into the higher altitudes. Amazing… an almost silent whoosh of feathers and outstretched talons just in front of me. But it missed the target! It didn’t get what it was after, the mother hen had saved the chicks with her strange dance. And it’s possible that my being there, having just turned around the corner at exactly the right instant, had caused the bird of prey to misjudge the distance to its target; the kamma of the moment – a fortunate turn of events for these cute little chicks. Mother hen and her happy brood went on with their day: cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep… story with happy ending.

It really cheered me up – the feeling that everything is right in the world! It helped me a lot too with a problem I was having with an irate person in the office who’d gotten the idea that I was at fault concerning something I’ll not go into right now. Not easy but it only lasted a short time. She was wrong, and I was completely sure about that but there was no hope of convincing her; so it was just a case of dodging the angry remarks fired at me like heat-seeking missiles. The strange thing about this was, the missiles were not hitting the intended target. It was intense but I was not emotionally harmed. I was able to see what was going on and be one step removed – not unaffected by it of course – but the fierce eyes, the anger, the voice did not cause injury: the missile misses its aim and all that’s felt is the wind of it as it goes by.

So I was feeling a bit like the little chicks who escaped the sharp talons of the Great Bird of Prey. My mind was transparent, a large empty space; nothing there – no target. Just this freshness, clear comprehension, and seeing with alertness, yet detached from it, knowing it’s Mind that’s the real threat. It’s understood in a moment and after that the system does it by itself; it’s not a ‘mine field’, it’s a mind field. When I think of it now and see these birds of prey suspended in the air, they’re harmless. When I’m not thinking about the threat, it’s not there. The birds hold my attention, their patient observing …

‘Mindfulness is what keeps the perspective of appropriate attention in mind. Modern psychological research has shown that attention comes in discrete moments. You can be attentive to something for only a very short period of time and then you have to remind yourself, moment after moment, to return to it if you want to keep on being attentive. In other words, continuous attention—the type that can observe things over time—has to be stitched together from short intervals. This is what mindfulness is for. It keeps the object of your attention and the purpose of your attention in mind.’ [Thanissaro Bhikkhu, ‘Mindfulness Defined‘]


Note: The above was developed from an earlier post: Skilful Avoidance


190320131769Chiang Mai: Holding the inverted eye-dropper bottle close to the eye, head back and squeeze a drop… it goes in, blink, and overflows, trickles out of the corner of the eye down the cheek like a tear drop and falls into the ear. I wipe it away with a tissue – the action triggers a memory, something emotional. I have new vision now, eye surgery for cataracts. The left eye is done, the right eye will be operated on next month. I’m seeing everything with such clarity; hard to believe the natural process of seeing that I’ve taken for granted all these years now involves a plastic lens. I see the world refracted through a man-made device and it doesn’t make any difference – well it does make a difference, of course, it’s very much better. My glasses don’t do anything any more; in the good eye the lens distorts vision, in the bad eye it enhances some things but it’s dull, blurred and yellowish in colour. I’ve had an overhaul – like taking the car to the garage to have new parts fitted. Or it’s how the system gets updated, the latest version is now installed. I feel renewed.

There’s this plasticity about the human body (and mind) that allows all kinds of changes to take place. I’m a Buddhist and I’m inspired by the thought that things can adapt, evolve, move on. It feels like there’s no such thing as getting stuck with anything or any state of mind, because we can learn to ‘unstick’ from it. In the same way, we can study a new subject; we put our minds to it, get interested in it and learn how it works. If I’m stuck with something, I’m attached to that thing in a strange kind of way; a locked-in response to adversity – more of a driven, unaware action than something done knowingly, mindfully. It’s a deluded attachment to habituality and I’m inspired by the very real possibility of working towards being free of this; acting always in awareness, seeing clearly.

Metaphors like ‘clouded vision’ describe tanha, habitual craving for something thought to be deservedly earned because of the endured hardship seemingly required to get there, unaware that one gets lost in the getting-there and there’s no end to it. Because I don’t normally understand things as they truly are, usually it’s how they’re seen habitually, I choose to see everything according to what’s already known; apperception, understanding newly observed data in terms of past experience. Before I get stuck in the delusion that it’s unavoidably like this, an opportunity arises to escape the cycle at Step 7 vedana in the paticcasamuppada (Cycle of Dependent Origination). Interrupt the causality sequence, go to the door leading to the emergency exit, aware that in the Buddhist sense of ‘no-self’, the habituality of mind’s perception of itself as the central actor in its own world, personality-view (sakkaya-ditthi), is the root of the problem. Step out of the cycle and I’m free…

Then later that night, walking to 7-eleven to get a few grocery items and I leave my glasses at home because they don’t help – I’ve worn glasses for most of my adult life and this is the first time I’m going out without them and at night time too. It’s been raining, there’s the glare of car headlights, and street lights reflected in large puddles. Only a short walk and arriving there, I notice some of the tiles on the floor of the lobby forecourt at the supermarket are shiny, glossy, and these must be new ones, replacements for the ones that were damaged? Why am I seeing this? I cover the good eye and look at the tiles with the old eye, no it can’t be seen, but I can see them with the good eye. It’s a repair I’d not have noticed before. People must think I’m acting strangely, better move along. So many discoveries about the world, and I’m stumbling around like this, seeing everything for the first time…


‘Instead of starting with a perception or a conception of anything, the Buddha established a way based on awareness, or awakened attention. This is an immanent act in the present. It is sati-sampajañña, an intuitive awareness that allows the consciousness to be with the present moment. With this attention, you begin to explore personality-view (sakkaya-ditthi) in terms of the perceptions you attach to as yourself.’ [Ajahn Sumedho, The Problem of Personality]

Upper photo: Interior of Chiang Mai songteaw (public transport vehicle). Lower photo: Night Market, Chiang Mai


dimensions of pain

DSC00134 Lake Wanaka - near Diamond LakeI WAKE UP FROM THE DREAM to find I’m shipwrecked on the sofa, notes and papers strewn around, a cold cup of coffee – how long have I been asleep? Turn to look at the clock, then the pain; lower back pain, oh… aaah! Yes, I remember now, I’ve been disabled for a few days and situated on the sofa mostly: pain is bad – I must have done something ‘bad’ to deserve this… the tendency to criticize oneself for having the pain, perpetuating the kamma of causes and conditions. I need to correct this frequently. Another thing is that I’ve had the pain often enough to know there’s a difference between the pain itself and the act of resisting it; also the attachment to wanting it to go away: I-don’t-want-it-to-be-there…. Profoundly desiring it to not-exist, vibhava-tanha, but I’ll not find any peace in attempting to gratify that need – although I may persist in trying. What to do? There’s nothing I can DO about it, except try to get comfortable and see how that goes. It’s a no-choice situation and, strangely enough, things start to improve as soon as I stop trying to do something about it…

Some years ago I had abdominal surgery (abominable abdominal surgery – no joke) two operations, 6 months apart. Just enough time to recover from the first before getting ready for the second. More difficult the second time around, because I knew what was coming. The first time it was unplanned, an emergency, severe abdominal pain, straight into the emergency room in a Bangkok hospital and admitted right away; something sinister and twisted in the large intestine. So I sign the no-liability form and get operated on the next day. The surgeon tells me after I come round, he’s removed two tumors together with a length of intestine – doesn’t tell me how much, I didn’t ask, and he also says he’s my closest friend; nobody else has ever left their handprints on my intestines!

Colonic cancer, I was lucky. In both operations the post-surgery period was dramatic. After the anesthetic had worn off, the pain arrived suddenly, right there in the centre of my physical being – absolutely no getting-away from it. The immensity of it occupying all the space and I’m backed into a corner. No escape, the only way I can go is forward, step into it. No choice, but dropping the resistance to the pain caused a moment of ease to arise, just before being swept away in the pain… wow, how did that happen? Clutching at straws: an insight, a tiny one, but it made a huge difference. There was desperation all around but just enough of an easing in the pain to tell me that whatever it was I’d done was good so how to do that again?

This back pain is the same kind of thing, but less intense, not erratic and scary. So I can allow it to be there. In contemplation of it, I see there are the other systems of the body all around the pain, normal stuff, just quietly ticking over. There’s sufficient space to distance myself from all the immediate responses to this pain; the obsessions and fears, mostly a conjured-up conceptualizing where, in different circumstances, like intense joy, it would lead to everything being compellingly interesting. And, in the same way, when I have intense pain I’m subject to fear and wild imaginings: ‘your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.’ [On Joy and Sorrow by Kahlil Gibran]

Conceptualizing is an automatic default that returns always to that same starting point: the ‘self’. Unless something propels it right out of there (like what happened to me in surgery) there’s nothing beyond this, no real insight into finding the way out of pain. But what the Ajahns told me about the Buddhist teaching is that the mind is not self. Mind is the sixth sense – everything I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and think. The mind sense usually leads to a consciousness of how everything is coming in from the outer world through sensory experience and that default to the sense of self: hey, this must be happening to ‘me’. With insight, the mind sense can bypass that, and then the pain is not happening to anyone – there’s no ‘me’ engaging with these thoughts. Instead there’s an awareness of the thinking process with no attachment, mostly abiding in a state of mindfulness and careful receptivity, sati-sampajañña; just looking to see what it might be. There’s a kind of alertness about the sensory function, and the simple curiosity: what is it? Just being open to what this could be, is enough to understand how it works…


Photo image by Louk Vreeswijk, New Zealand Collection