I took this week off work. Originally I wanted to take a weeks solitary retreat in October. But then work restricted October leave, and suggested anyone wanting time off take it in September. After asking around various venues nothing quite fitted the time I had available. I adjusted my expectations, deciding to stay at home, on not quite a holiday, but by no means a solitary either. Jnanasalin was away during this period for about five days, so I had a chance of being alone at least some of the time. The week before, I heard of a vacancy at a solitary retreat venue, but by then I was mentally readjusted to being 'at home'.
Abbey House during the day,at least in my half of it, is relatively quiet, with few phone calls. Theoretically, it seemed it possible to have a degree of undisturbed space for reflection, practice, reading, writing, painting or just generally hanging about. I remained open to it being all, some or none of these. With Jnanasalin's return and adapting to the physical demands of a new job, happening at around the same time, I've found myself operating a lot in a responsive, adaptive mode. I've felt as if I was out of focus, a bit blurred at the edges, spiritually speaking.
As it turned out I did no more meditation practice than I normally do, if anything slightly less. I read daily from the Digha Nikaya. For a few days I was writing a Shabda report ( Shabda is an internal publication of the Western Buddhist Order, where members write in about there lives, thoughts and practice.) Writing this began turning my mind to exactly what my semi-solitary reflections were going to focus on. It was clear I wanted to deepen my understanding and practice of Kalyana Mitrata ( spiritual friendship ) in some way. I couldn't locate a specific Sutta, or commentary, that went into this in any more depth than I'd already imbibed or intuitively grasped.
In the end, I came back to an old favorite -The Four Samgrahavastus - often referred to, perhaps a little too grandly as The Means Of Unification of the Sangha. For four days I spent a few hours each day reflecting and writing on these. I didn't look into the specific detail of my practice, but explored widely how one practices the Samgrahavastus, to understand better how they could benefit both oneself and the Sangha. The Samgrahavastus are - Generosity - Kindly or Affectionate Speech - Beneficial Activity - Exemplification. Through my reflections it became clear how fundamental generosity was, as the essential underpinning to all the other Samgrahvastus'. The other three are either a natural outcome of practicing generosity;in that through practicing generosity you would be kind and affectionate for instance. or the resulting fruit of it; in that others would benefit from it, or would be a quality you would exemplify.
The Four Samgahavastus are sometimes referred to as the altruistic activity of a Bodhisattva ( a being who vows to save all sentient beings before accepting full enlightenment themselves ) This act of delay, to put other peoples needs before your own, is the ultimate generous impulse. So this unsurprisingly brought me back to a central tenet of our Order - The Bodhisattva Ideal, its something I don't always readily recognise that I practice. After all, I'm not, ultimately, practicing Kalyana Mitrata for my benefit at all. In looking at myself, I acknowledge that I'm already willing to drop what I'm doing to make myself available to others, if I'm able. Supporting others seems a central, almost instinctual, practice for me, and even through this recent 'out of focus' period, what I've been doing is being a stable, supportive presence for others benefit. This may largely unconscious competence, but there does appear to be a reliable consistency to how I am, that others appear to find valuable, and have said so on a number of occasions to me.
What resulted from these 'at home' reflections, is that there doesn't appear to be anything I need to specifically add to what I currently do. But, I could get more behind what I do quite naturally, and deepen that purely by making it more consciously a practice. To seize opportunities to be generous, in the moment of them. Though generosity, as an activity, doesn't necessarily have to be seen at all, nor does there have to be an explanation or reason for it, either. It just needs expressing as a natural efflorescence of being human. But once I set out to practice this, the first thing I encounter are the current boundaries, those moments where I stifle the impulse, or self-censor it. So to keep this intention alive, and those boundaries permeable,will be a practice in itself. I'll need to remain alert. I could easily switch off to it and settle back into the usual groove of behaviour. To bring this generosity of spirit more consciously to mind, or my intention will easily evaporate.
By Friday, if I was a broiled chicken, I think I'd be described as a little spiritually overcooked. I began to find myself flagging, if not strongly resisting doing any further practice. A period of absorption was required, if not demanded, of me, so I took my foot off the accelerator and chilled out. As if knowing this, my room in the house was instantly surrounded by external activity and clatter, as numerous people appeared to prepare windows for repair or paint. I was no longer entirely alone during the day. My only way to escape this was to go out, to stroll, shop or cook. Cooking is a great way to be generous towards my community, in my case by preparing more elaborate meals than I would normally do, or making cakes. I can view cooking for the community as simply a duty one does as a member of it, maybe even as a chore at times. Its also an opportunity to give in a very practical way, meeting an obvious need, one which also delights and pleases others.
Its all too easy to become over preoccupied with my apparent needs, my need for time and space, my need to write or paint, as if my enjoyment of life truly depended on it. I often neglect the easy satisfaction to be gained from generosity. There is a fulfillment, a completeness and calm to be gained from it. It's as if all the angst ridden striving for self-expression is far too obsessively driven to really give us what we want - which is to be restfully at peace with ourselves and the world. Rather than settling the mud in the water, it repeatedly stirs it up. Essentially generosity is not an act of self-expression, it moves us away from a completely ego centred existence, in the direction of self-transcendence. The intensity of that self-centred view melts away once one begins responding to desires to help, to give to others in often quite astoundingly simple ways. Generosity doesn't have to be a big deal, in fact its probably better kept low key, otherwise ones ego is likely to want to steal the lifeforce of your new pet goldfish.