“I ended the retreat with a far greater clarity overall plus these two major concepts in my head, the issue of impermanence, and the issue of how we allow our minds to control us rather than the other way around. And so I now had two Buddhist “things” to learn more about and incorporate into my meditation. It was a start, a new start and better than the previous start. But, there was still a thought at the back of my mind that something far greater had happened, my VIEW of life as a whole had changed, and the question of whether I could fully grasp and “live” this VIEW.”
These were the closing words of my previous Buddha & Me post, and also my thoughts 23 years ago as I drove back from the Manjushree Temple in Cumbria to our Cotswolds home. I’m reflecting on that now as we emerge from Covid here in England and recognising once again how my VIEW of life changed during that retreat, then grew into a sustainable personal philosophy that I have tried hard to apply to everything I do. But, please don’t think I am moralising or virtue signalling here, writing this series of posts is part of my own continued learning, learning from a cycle of structured reflections followed by further development of myself.
I now know that there are three “marks of existence” ……… impermanence, suffering, no-self. In the original Pali language from the time of Buddha …. anicca, dukkha, anatta. In other words this is at the heart of Buddha’s teaching, a VIEW of how the world is, a view of reality, my reality, your reality. Impermanence is easy to understand; nothing lasts, everything changes, bad things will end, good things will end, the seed becomes a plant, the plant dies, new things arise, pain comes and pain goes, our life begins our life ends. Suffering was also described in a particular way by Siddhartha when he left home, and for the first time recognised the physical suffering of birth, sickness, ageing and death. But he also recognised the mental suffering too, a mental suffering arising from how we perceive or view our experiences, forming judgements that can overwhelm us. The Covid pandemic has been a physical experience for all of us, directly through contracting the virus, or indirectly through the removal of freedoms. So, a lockdown could be seen as essential to protect us, or an unnecessary restriction, or even part of a conspiracy to control us. Two of these perceptions create mental suffering. This mental suffering grows as people crave things they can no longer enjoy, a simple visit to the pub, hugging a relative, a foreign holiday. But this serves to emphasise another important aspect of a Buddhist VIEW, the Five Hindrances; Craving, Aversion, Apathy, Agitation, Doubt, all of which arise in our minds as “responses” to experiences and events. A personal example to illustrate:
“Every morning I take an early walk, 5 miles at most, 2 miles at least, around a large footpathed field, into the village, and back through the streets. Sometimes along the River Thames if I want the longer route. For some months I had been suffering with aches and pains that has now resulted in my needing a spine operation (successfully completed a week ago) and a total hip replacement scheduled for early July. Naturally my distance walked each morning had reduced and I had some pain in completing it. I was handling the pain ok partly through meditation activity, but also, I freely admit, with painkillers. But I was starting to feel quite miserable, mostly when I was alone and especially when I was out walking, just like on this particular day. You know the sort of thoughts that build up in your head ….. “I’ve aged 20 years in the last 2 years, I’m really fed up with this, will it never end, I wish it was next week ….. yada yada”. On this particular day all of these things had been whispered in my mind before I even reached the large field! I actually stopped “dead in my tracks” metaphorically speaking of course, and looked around the hedgerows and towards the village church spire. It was a classic English landscape on a sunny spring morning, nobody else in sight, quite silent, no traffic noise, only the self imposed noise in my head. I literally smiled to myself and started walking again, it was a wake up call, time to take the right VIEW of things. I emptied my mind of the aches and pains, I put to the back of my mind the first operation due in a weeks time, I removed my concern about Dr C being alone for a couple of days while I was hospital …. and I started to realise that what I was feeling was Agitation, one of the Five Hindrances, and an accumulation of all of the related things bothering me. It wasn’t exactly Walking Meditation, but it WAS contemplation, Buddhist contemplation which happened because I knew what I was looking for and how to find it. I continued walking, I took the first step of realising this was agitation, I took the second step of recognising its sources, I took the third step of understanding my miserableness, I took the fourth step of acknowledging my agitation…… and kept walking. I arrived home feeling much better.”
Since that day I have not felt the same level of agitation of things building up on me, or if it appears, I acknowledge it …. and it dissipates. This is Buddhist mindfulness, quite different from non Buddhist secular mindfulness. It is based on a particular VIEW of the world, it is based on other things too, but they are for another post. There is no criticism of secular mindfulness or secular meditation here, I have tried it, but the outcomes were transitory for me, it involved “pushing away” or trying to bury the “hindrance” instead of recognising then acknowledging it before letting it drift away. Each hindrance still exists inside me, but buried like a seed in the soil. But I must choose not to feed it or water it!
The Eightfold Path which leads us towards “wellbeing” includes Right View and in many interpretations it is #1 and followed by Right Intention/Thinking, they naturally go together. Right Mindfulness usually appears as #7 in The Eightfold Path though I include it as #3 in my own approach, and so Right View, Right Intention, Right Mindfulness reflect greatly what Buddhism means to me. I will explore their combination in a subsequent post in my series Buddha & Me.
I hope you are enjoying my Buddhist thoughts and will comment too, share your own experiences as part of the Sangha. Sharing our experiences and reflecting on them is an important part of learning, writing about them helps to focus one’s thoughts too, and this is the great benefit I am gaining from these posts.