Sunday, November 22, 2015

Everyday Life ~ No 2 We Eat What We Are

When I was a small child I attended a birthday party. As my friends and family sat around a large table eating the meal, I was getting into quite a bit of a state. Not long on solid foods, I was having great trouble eating meat. No matter how much I tried chewing the stuff it just ended up a mushy grey ball in my mouth,that grew larger and larger the more I ate. Eventually,I was literally unable to stuff any more in, My cheeks bulged with a ball too large for my small oesophagus to swallow.  I had to find a way out of this situation. I can't remember now exactly how I did it, but somehow I managed to extract the partly masticated meat ball from out of my mouth without my Mum seeing. The problem then was where on earth to put it ~ in my pocket? ~ on the floor? ~ or just continue holding this slimy half digested thing in the palm of my hand until I could find some way to discretely put it in a bin. Trapped on a long bench behind a table of other small party goers I couldn't leave without attracting attention. I settled for discrete disposal onto the carpet, where on later discovery I hoped there wasn't too much evidence, like incriminating teeth marks, to point the parental finger at me. It was the first time, that I can recall now, where I tried to conceal the consequences of my actions.

There have been times in the past when, half jokingly, I've used this incident as evidence that I never found meat eating palatable, that I was a born vegetarian forced by my parents into being a carnivore. Its hard to resist the temptation to rewrite our personal history to make what evolved erratically in an incoherent manner into a clear inevitable outcome. I'm attempting through writing this article to be as honest as I can be about how I became a vegetarian, whilst recognising that my experience and perceptions have altered me so I no longer see through the same eyes. So, looking again at that childhood incident, I would imagine that children have difficulty learning what to do with solid food, when they first start eating it. It doesn't slip down quite as easily as the baby food that's been chopped and boiled so any toothless person, of any age, can consume it without effort. Also, it wasn't that I disliked the flavour or texture of meat, but the practical issue of chewing and swallowing as you go. Once this issue had been conquered I was more than happy to eat meat for the next thirty years or so. That appeared then to be the natural human thing to do. Children follow their parents example, for a while at least.

Crouch End in North London

How did I move from enthusiastic meat eater to becoming a vegetarian? Well, it was never quite the neat upward progression, born aloft on an escalating ethical awareness and sensitivity. The prime mover appears to have been circumstances. I went to live and work in London in the April of 1980. For the first couple of years I lived in a number of shared houses, where everyone had to fight to gain access to an oven. Due to this my food consumption started to focus more on speed, and simplicity, so I ate tinned or pre-made processed food or takeaways. I lived for a while in the multi-cultural, 'alternative' district of North London called Crouch End, there I encountered both my first vegetarian whole food shop, and Doner Kebabs in Pitta bread, I became quite partial to both.  Even when I moved into my first one room bedsit in East Finchley my culinary ambitions were still somewhat limited by my living conditions. I once tried making and cooking a vegetarian lasagne on the Baby Belling in my room,with its two rings and tiny tiny oven, and I can say without exaggeration it took all afternoon.

Gradually meat consumption started to decline, led by purely practical issues or cost, convenience and the limits circumstances imposed. Awareness of vegetarian ethics was in the air, through some of the people I met and was friends with. Through these I was being stirred, there was the aroma of cooking, but nothing you could consciously get your teeth into. Once your meat consumption declines your stomach adjusts to eating food that is less challenging to the digestive process. Eventually the life I lived in London became entirely whole food and mostly vegetarian, but when I went back up North to visit family, there I was still a meat eater. My past and present sat like odd incongruous bookends. I'd return to London with this uncomfortable distended feeling in my stomach, as if I'd eaten a lead balloon. Though this wasn't a pleasant sensation, physical discomfort didn't make reconciling this disharmony a priority.

The year I became a vegetarian was 1985  the year of the The Smiths second LP. The title song, Meat is Murder, is an unsubtle direct attack on meat eaters, using highly emotive sounds and imagery. Beginning with the mournful groans of cows cut across by the slaughtering sweep of a chain saw, over which Morrissey plangently sings lyrics that read like extracts from a Gothic horror novel ;~

'closer comes the screaming knife, this beautiful creature must die' 
'the flesh you so fancifully fry, is not succulent tasty or kind' 
'the meat in your mouth as you savour the flavour of murder'

It wasn't these sounds or words that converted me. The song was too heavily laden with manipulative melodramatic sentiment to be convincing, It places emotional guilt upon the listener, punishing, coercing and imprisoning. Nothing to suggest that not eating meat might be mutually liberating, for both beast and human. Having guilt thrust upon you from outside is very different to feeling personal remorse for your behaviour. Our reasons for adjusting that behaviour can be complex. conforming to external social or ethical pressure is only one of them. Underneath our conformity, our baser thoughts and feelings can still survive unexpressed but intact. Now you might say that's OK so long as it stops them eating meat. What I'm interested in is what actually changes peoples minds and behaviour, and what actively changed mine?

Morrissey, for all his self evident flaws,is who he is; open, honest,self-opinionated, prime narcissist, deliberately controversial, steadfastly refusing to be pigeon holed in any way. Whilst not blindly idolising, I did respect him. He represented aspects of what I wished to be, but wasn't quite able to be yet. However odd Morrissey might seem as a role model, he was standing for what he believed in, unafraid of what others might say. Something at the time I found hard to do. His spirit I wished to emulate. I began learning how to be more ethical by standing in Morrissey's shadow. We can under estimate the effect a living breathing example, can have upon us. I doesn't mean they need to be perfect or heroic either, just people who are who they are, expressing what they believe through their everyday life. These sort of persons have had a more profound influence on me than any amount of confrontational agitprop,which tended to put me on the defensive. From such a position changing ones mind is very difficult

I hadn't thought deeply about personal ethics before, let alone having a choice in the food that I ate. I'd arrived where I was due to the push and pull of circumstance, including socially hanging around people who thought about such things, It might seem I suddenly had this ethical epiphany, with a pulsing caring heart implanted into it. But that would be to underestimate both the hardness of my heart before that time, and the drip drip effect of other peoples influence and example overtime. I'd always wanted what I did to matter, to transform myself and the world for the better. Somehow Morrissey's example reinvigorated my idealism, that through being frustrated had ossified into a judgemental cynicism. Becoming a vegetarian laid the ground for my encounter with Buddhism six or seven years later. There were at least three distinct turning points where things I'd previously concealed or was unaware of became fully lived in my everyday life. First,was the realisation and actualisation of being gay, the second was the realisation and actualisation of being a vegetarian, the third was the realisation and actualisation of being a Buddhist.

There is always a bit of a learning curve involved in cooking balanced vegetarian meals that are both nutritious and nice to eat. At this time I lived on my own, and making such a change to my diet was relatively easy .Living in a meat eating family where you're the only vegetarian, does not encourage ones intentions. Faced with meat being eaten in front of you daily, even the stiffest of ethical resolve may wither due to the lack of supportive conditions. Its not enough just to have the desire, there has to be a practical way to make it happen, otherwise its difficult to emotionally sustain it. I've lived in Buddhist Communities now for well over sixteen years, where being a vegetarian is de riguer. Whilst acknowledging I am fortunate, I recognise that my ethical practice is as dependent upon how favourable or unfavourable my circumstances are, as it is for everyone else. Take these conditions away, and how would even I fare?

There are members of my community who are vegan, so I eat more vegan food than Jnanasalin and I would if we were to live on our own. I still love cheese, eat the occasional egg, and I consume milk in my Flat White in a favourite cafe of a weekend.  At present I'm not ready, nor frankly that interested, in taking the ethics of vegetarianism to what appear to be its logical conclusion, to become a vegan.  I have to recognise that becoming a vegan still feels like more of an impoverishing decision than a liberating one. This feeling definitely carries with it an uneasy emotional background, with all the defensive reactive embellishments one might expect  I find myself baulking at conforming to the perceived inevitability of an ethical logic, whilst also knowing other sentient beings die or suffer as a consequence of my desire to eat their oestrogen rich progeny, the products made from milk and wearing their tanned hides on my feet. Through doing these things I have to own my share of the responsibility for the suffering of those animals. Maybe that ethical price is one I'm still prepared to pay, and any sophisticated rationales I might construct, even here, are refined ways of saying 'I don't want to change.' Ideas, images and invocations have no power without impulse. Emotional volition is essential for change to burst forth into active full bloom.

The first, and primary Buddhist precept, is one out of which all further precepts of body, speech and mind are born. Its not a commandment, nor an unbreakable rule, its a guiding principle that is used intelligently to direct our ethical practice. It's entirely up to us how far we want to take its interpretation and apply of it to our everyday life. Precepts come in packs of twos; what we move away from and what we move towards. So there is :~ 'I undertake to abstain from taking life' on the one hand, and  'With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body' on the other. That the 'taking of life' must be a defilement of the body is implied by 'I purify my body'. None of the precept abstentions state what their negative ethical consequence is, their defiling nature is taken for granted, the emphasis is placed decisively on the thing that needs cultivating ~ 'loving kindness'.

It's the increasingly deeper experience of  'loving kindness' that will drive change, I need to tangibly feel my current actions are 'defiling' me, not just bodily or psychologically, but spiritually. By recognising I feel unwholesome because of my actions I'm then prepared to make a profound shift in order to purify them. For the most part it's such instinctual feelings that direct us. Logic plays a role in this, but is mostly retrospectively applied. We think about the reasons why we've chosen to do what we've done, in response to our heart having already moved a step ahead. Should logic alone motivate us, the actions however well intentioned, will have to find themselves a heart. Logic and willpower unaffected by feeling, are barren things, capable of alienating us from the reality of our emotions and resistances. I've found through painful past experience, to be cautious in not creating inauthentic divorces between my ideals and my personal readiness to act. Our 'loving kindness' towards others is incomplete if we are passed over unloved in the process. Through the practice of not taking the life from others, it is possible, paradoxically, to take the life from ourselves. Its better to start from the position that ~ we eat what we are. Whilst I encourage my actions to move towards being more ethically skillful, I have to recognise that this side of Enlightenment they'll never be completely perfect. I am an imperfect being, living in an imperfect world. Trying to perfect the imperfectible would be foolish. Learning to live with imperfection is a harder, but a wiser practice.

'To abstain from taking life' can seem solely about the slaughter or murder of other sentient beings. In a literal sense that is true, but it's spirit is more far reaching than that. It has a broader remit to examine all the facets of our interactions to perceive where it is that we 'take life' from ourselves and from others. This may be by lying, slandering, hatefulness, craving or simply by holding views that run counter to the way life and things really are. Through our thoughts, speech and actions we can do violence to others. This reverberates through our being. so both us and the world we live in become riddled with it.

Few of us in the West are directly involved in the killing of other living beings. We consume, these days, at many removes from the production of the things that we eat, whether meat or vegetable. This doesn't absolve us from taking a degree of ethical responsibility for the killing of animals, or the ethical consequences for those that kill on our behalf.  The whole meat and dairy industry exists as a result of our collective actions in eating meat, fish and dairy produce. Killing the animal you eat is traditionally the pre-eminent life defiling action. These defiling consequences becomes less tangible the further away our responsibility is from the actual slaughter. This distancing may be one reason why most people aren't vegetarian, and why I don't feel compelled to be vegan. The background consequences of my actions are not placed in front of me daily. If I fail to connect emotionally or imaginatively, it may be due to this lack of cogent experiential feeling for the consequence of what I do are. In theory at least, if an animal were to die of natural causes or through an accident, because it wasn't killed by human hand, it might be eaten free of any ethical consequence. The emphasis then, is placed on the means by which the food we eat is obtained.

In the ethical rush to not be implicated in the killing of animals, there are other ethical practices which may be overlooked,sidelined or downgraded. Our ethical relationships with animals might be squeaky clean, whilst our ethical relations with other human beings might be poor. Adopting the high ethical ground over what we eat, can publicly sanitise selfish, superior feelings and our desire to have influence over and control the actions of other human beings, that can lie beneath it. We can lose touch with cultivating 'loving kindness' towards others because they don't do what we do, they don't model themselves on us and become vegetarian or vegan. Our ethical practice can become another craving or aversion, another fixed like or dislike, another extension of ourselves, even of our self hate. Do we eat to satisfy our hunger, to survive, to feed our greedy nature, eat in order to pass time, to fill up the existential void through our mouths, or eat to throw up immediately after,? How and why we eat, is as interesting, from the point of view of practice, as what we eat

In the Buddha's time wandering Buddhist mendicants fed themselves by the begging for alms, going from door to door in a village or town asking for food. They offer up their bowl never knowing what they'd be given, all qualities and types of food mixed up in one pot. In India this would be mostly vegetarian, in other cultures this couldn't be guaranteed. The practice in receiving alms forces a mendicant to go beyond personal preference and accept cleanly, without qualms, the generosity of what they are given, from whoever it is given by. The mendicant in begging for alms shouldn't really make distinctions about who they will or wont accept alms from, they are simply to receive whatever is given. By doing this they also create an opportunity for the alms giver to go beyond there own selfish concerns and perform a generous act. However, I'd be surprised if the social obligation of alms giving was always administered or received with good grace, I'm sure many people in villages and towns would grow resentful of the seemingly never ending stream of beggars and the drain on their own perhaps limited resources. And if the picture painted in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa is to believed, mendicants could become quite adept at discerning where the wealthier areas of town were and begging for alms there, because they'd get a richer, better quality of food.

I'm not suggesting we all should take up begging for alms. It does ,however, provide an example of a different emphasis that can be made on ethical practice and food. It appears to be founded on making oneself beholden to the kindness of others, wearing down our selfishness by not pandering to likes and dislikes, challenging over weaning pride and encouraging generosity in others.  A wandering mendicant is not involved in any work, let alone growing food or breeding and slaughtering animals. The ethics of what you are eating and its means of production appears less emphasised, the ethical focus being on the spiritual efficacy of having to beg for the food one eats. Ideally cultivated within the generous aura of 'loving kindness', in how the food is given and received. This is part of a broader ethical spectrum to be considered alongside the ethics of how food is produced.

Another aspect was highlighted to me recently. A group of us were in a restaurant and we all ordered vegetarian versions of items on the menu. When one friend's food arrived it turned out to contain meat. However, rather than send it back, they decided to eat it, but picked out any obvious bits of meat and put them on one side. Their concern was that in sending the food back, it would be thrown away which would be wasteful. An animal died in order to provide food that ended up being thrown away. This is doubly wasteful, of a life and of food. In our culture we rarely consider how wasteful our consumption of it is. If our food isn't exactly what we want we send it back, without a second thought for what the consequence of that action may be. In the West, in our mythical world of never ending abundance,it can be hard to see our food and water as precious resource and the necessary ecology of not being wasteful of it. At all levels of our society everyone wants to feel they have a choice in what they eat, even if you live on the street, get food from a food bank, or are a freegan raiding a supermarket's dump bins. Being able to chose is being able to freely express our sense of our selves.

Twenty first century consumerism is built on choice, and consequently if we have the money we can eat exactly what we want, when we want it. Increased choice is matched by increased alienation from the means of food production, and a tendency to become increasingly neurotic about food. Horror stories abound in the media of animal cruelty, pesticide residues, food allergies, digestive diseases and major food health scares. These turn the simple act of eating into an ethical minefield, everywhere there seems yet another new thing to be faced or avoided. We feel the oppressive weight of these choices everyday, so its not surprising if some turn a deaf ear, or simply draw a line and say this far and no further. There is some virtue in doing that, we can't make an imperfect world perfect purely through the food we consume. We end up making selected gestures to demonstrate we are doing something, but its lack of breadth and joined up coherence is a very telling trait.

To decide to give up this tyranny of personal choice is a spiritual practice, yet even doing without choice is a choice, and you might reasonably suggest just become a vegan and have done with it. However, its also important to challenge the neurotic nature of our likes and dislikes. Though being a carnivore, a vegetarian, or a vegan are ethical choices, they are also ways to express our preferences and exert control, As a vegetarian you may choose to refuse an act of generosity when someone offers you a jelly baby, because there may be animal gelatin in it,  Whatever the sound ethical reasons, this does rebuff an act of generosity, an opportunity to share is denied, a connection is cut, a kind action curtailed. Putting other peoples needs before your own, can exist alongside guarding the ethical gates of what's in the food you eat. I'm well aware that I am blurring clear ethical lines of consistency here, the sort of thing most of us tends to find easier to stick with, We like black and white distinctions, not muddy debatable grey ones. I do so purely to broaden the spectrum of issues out from the narrow literalness that can sometimes dominate ethical rectitude. This may mean I decide where I place my ethical emphasis in each moment, and it being entirely possible that I may adjust it, even if this appears ethically inconsistent.

My ethical practice can drift towards rigidity and self-righteousness, a sensitively applied self-discipline turns overtime into the hard-hearted habitual sternness of an iron rod. I've found it personally useful to see my ethical practice as a conditional preference, to hold it as lightly and deftly as I can, and apply it as directly as I can in response to the exigences of the present moment. I've been consistently practising being a vegetarian now for getting on for thirty years. I've lived with vegans and eaten vegan food. I can envisage there might be circumstances where I may have to eat meat, In my current conditions I can easily eat across a spectrum of vegetarian/vegan food, but this may not always be the case, dependant upon circumstances that emphasis may be forced to shift.

I cannot artificially contrive a pure motivation, I have to accept that even my best actions usually have a rather messier mix of motives. Though they do arise out of an genuinely authentic desire to be better than I currently am. Becoming a vegan without a genuinely authentic desire to be one, could just simply be placing a tick in the Buddhist ethical correctness box. The relative cleanness of our intention is another element in whether our ethical practice will be spiritually effective. In one of the opening paragraphs of Dogen's Instructions for the Zen Cook he says this:~

"This work has always been carried out by teachers settled in the Way and by others who have aroused the Bodhisattva spirit within themselves. such a practice requires exerting all your energies. If a person entrusted with this work lacks such a spirit, then they will only endure unnecessary hardships and suffering that will have no value in their pursuit of the way."

I am not a Bodhisattva, and the Bodhisattva spirit has not arisen in me. I simply put insufficient amounts of effort and attention into making 'loving kindness' a more prevalent quality in my thoughts, speech and actions. If there were an ethical spectrum, hatred might be on the far right, and the Bodhisattva spirit definitely more left field, with 'loving kindness' being somewhere left of centre. I've placed myself facing in the right direction but not yet far enough away from negative influences to be incapable of being drawn back into them. What is important to note is that, according to Dogen's view, any endurance, any hardship, any suffering we might encounter through executing an ethical practice in our everyday work and life, will have little or no spiritual value in our pursuit of the Enlightened state, if it lacks the Bodhisattva spirit or at the very least an alive pulsing practice of 'loving kindness' at its very heart.

My ethical actions ought to be representative of me at my best, adjusted in response to any shift in the direction, quality and purity of my heart. There is a place for pre-emptive actions to challenge the ethical level I am currently set, or maybe stuck, at. Though I need to be wary of acting prematurely, beyond my heartfelt readiness for change. Sometimes I've been not sufficiently aware of how un-ready I was, and this has damaged and undermined further efforts at making progress. For an un-ready,unwilling participator any perception of having made progress might prove to be an illusory one. In my experience opportunities to move forward tend to arise in response to, and to meet, ones readiness.

I want to encourage my ethical practice in everyday life to be as diverse as it can be, avoiding settling down or becoming a one trick pony. In looking back over the early history and development of my ethical practice in regard to food, it was circumstances that provided the foundations for further changes to arise and take their place within me. Principles, precepts, practices or people appeared to emerge to meet and encapsulate what was already coming into being.

This article has been a very instructive thing for me to write, It has been based purely upon my present perceptions of what my past motivations and experience were, so in the sense of being an accurate representation it is a flawed one. I hope, nonetheless, that it has some resonance with it, and with the lives of others .

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Everyday Life ~ No 1 Battling, Living & Working With It.

I worked for a Buddhist Right Livelihood business for over seventeen years, and it did what it said on the tin, provided supportive conditions so that I could use my work as a spiritual practice. It was a simple direct way of working on myself as I worked. It could also, to be honest, be like a safe house, a place to hide away from hostile truths and unpalatable realities, indulge in being overly precious. I feel now that living in such a benevolent workspace for so long, was not entirely good for the liveliness of my spiritual practice. Any change unsettles the status quo, stirs up stagnant energy and blows the dust off aspirations that have perhaps stood still for too long.  So, now I've returned to that ordinary world of work outside, I'm finding fresh inspiration in creating ways to positively engage with it, and not approach it as if it were the supreme enemy of the spiritual life that I have to fight off.  That seems now like a rather perverse form of aversion hidden behind the well polished veneer of spiritual delicacy ~ 'lets keep that filthy decadent deluded world at arms length shall we, lest it pollute the purity of our intentions.' 

Men do have a tendency to see every difficulty they encounter as an adversarial conflict, sometimes its appropriate, but more often it demonstrates a lack of sensitivity. In terms of practice in everyday life we see the battle as between the outside world and our desire, however spiritually conceived, for control over it, It's usually clear from the start who'll win hands down, and usually it wont be us. To turn everything into a battle of wills is quite futile, only causing us unnecessary suffering. However much we might want it to be otherwise, the world is how it is, and though it does change, it's not forced into changing by strength of human will alone. We, however, don't have to be how we are and should be willing to adjust our approach in response to whatever we encounter.

So its clear where the real battles are being fought, and its not out there. It's like a man who has a headache trying to make it go away by banging his head against a wall, until both he and the wall are bloodied. Its an image often used in plays to dramatise personal torment, and they're quite painful to watch. Yet we all know the emotions that this is trying to convey. It's not everyday life that is frustrating and tormenting, it is us that is frustrated and tormented.

Having said all that, everyday life, if you allow it, will 'pollute the purity of our intentions' . We may indeed have to guard ourselves against being coerced or deceived by it, but the toughest fight will be to not become passive to it. You can't always be putting up, or learning to live with it, or be ambivalent to the effects of everyday life upon you, or treat it as somehow neutral, or take a hands off laissez fare attitude, far from it.  Not everything about everyday life is 'most efficacious in every way'. There is a need to make wise distinctions every moment of the day, a preference for the skilful rather than un-skilful in the way we act, speak or think. Practice in everyday life has to have 'be ethical' written into its DNA.

Yet, what exactly do we mean when we say 'everyday life'? It's such a generalised all encompassing term, it feels almost ludicrous to suggest we might not know what we are talking about. I'm not going to get into philosophical conjectures about whether the world outside us really exists. Lets just take it that we experience the world as having a concrete reality that we interact with and interacts with us. I could draw up a very very long list of things of what constitutes everyday life, that wouldn't be remotely comprehensive. So I'll couch it in more simplistic terms, everyday life is where events, people, environment and ourselves collide, our behaviour mediated through our responses to all four. Responsive behaviour is conditioned by the views we hold, by what we think we want from events, people, environments and ourselves, our desires and expectations of what everyday life can give us.

The Buddha thought there were three things that marred human existence, the first and primary one is a view that everything good in life, is, or should be, permanent. The reality,however, is that everything good in life is not permanent, things change,what was gained is lost, things arise that disturb our stability,we get what we don't want, this then causes the second, great frustration, anger,disillusion, dissatisfaction and despair. As this view of impermanence trickles down into the depths, our psyche tries hard to avoid the logical third consequence, that the Number One good thing - us - is not a permanent entity either. That continuous sense of our self we experience, is a falsity, a misconception, we too are a changing, shifting, transitory thing. This causes us on a sub conscious level, immense irreconcilable grief, as though a favourite pet has been stolen. Our response is to renew our efforts to find at least one thing that is permanent, we press the fulfilment of our desires into being the meaning to our life, and deny all indications and thoughts about our psychological and bodily mortality. Spiritual practice in everyday life attempts to subvert these three fallacies. Its best to start with our desires, because they're easier to spot, most quickly reveal themselves to be vacuous conceits that don't possess the meaning we attribute to them. Their sole purpose being to distract us from the meaninglessness that arises should we accidentally bump into our impermanent peril, In the light of this, the stuff of everyday life seems a very spiritually potent thing indeed. This is what we are truly battling with, learning to live more consciously with, to actively work with.

When we take an ethical decision, by what are we being instructed; by our experience, a rational assessment or a gut instinct? It might appear that this involves a tussle between all three, but Professor Paul Dolan's theories about decision making suggest, that if we are forced to make a decision quickly we mostly follow our gut instinct and construct an explanatory rationale for it afterwards. If there is more time, then it may be possible for a more experiential and rationally based thinking through of the issues to take place. Having a clear ethical framework against which to weigh our thoughts, feelings and actions, is going to be an essential tool for practice in everyday life. It's helpful if there is time to give broader consideration to all the factors impacting on an issue, but you can't rely on there always being time. We will, in most instances, have to trust our ethical gut instincts in the present moment.

Applying an ethical framework to life decisions becomes second nature. Any positive habit will over time and repeated application become a 'conscious competence' The skill is in preventing our ethical standing from becoming unquestionable,  hardening into a fixed like or dislike. This may mean we just stopped actually weighing up issues in the present moment, so our behaviour is almost predestined. So whilst there are definite benefits in holding ourselves to an ethical standard, this will cease to be a practice alive to the prescient individual character of each moment, if it ossifies into a rule, of what you shalt and shalt not do. If this happens then something is beginning to go ethically awry. Ethical practice has a flexible subtly nuanced nature, yes, it is informed by past experience, but its also responsive to present conditions and circumstances. There must always be a possibility to think, say or do things entirely differently. If ethics turns into a prejudiced opinion then it takes us away from any clear eyed objective assessment, towards a more subjective view, that's becoming entangled in our pride and self identity,  As Sosan Seng-ts'an in his Verses on the Faith Mind puts it:~

"if you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind." 

To take every day and myself exactly as they present themselves, is one way to define the approach I'm currently adopting to my practice. I take my past experience with me, as practical tools stuffed into my backpack, but what the nature of the territory I'll traverse is, well, that unfolds with every day. For example, I don't even know how I will be when I awake. I have osteo-arthritis present, to a lesser or greater extent, in most of my joints. The depth and length of time I sleep can be dependent upon the level of discomfort I experience over night. This sleep deprivation, how cold or warm the room is overnight, how much or little I ate before bed, how heavy the work was the previous day, the type of weather and atmospheric pressure, are all events that affect how my body feels as I awake. Then there is my response to that feeling. My joints can be stiff and achy as I walk about at 3 am, and my state of mind can be correspondingly stiff and achy too. Experience tells me that physical and emotional states tend to live together in a sort of dysfunctional marriage. So my early morning practice is in not allowing how I'm physically feeling at the start to set the emotional template for the entire day. If I'm in a grumbly, resentful, despairing, self-pitying state of mind I have to be kinder throughout the early morning, not push myself too hard, cut myself a bit of emotional slack. At some point my psycho-physical being does rise above the turbulent thundery cloud layer. If I'm actually quite bright, sharp and alert, its worth enjoying it, but need to temper my enthusiasm so I don't become unbearably peppy, or so intoxicated by the energy I have that I try to do everything, crashing exhausted by the end of the day, How I am of a morning I treat as a conditioned, but impermanent event. If I manage not to gorge on my despair or my delight, the day might have a more steady emotional tone, and at best a touch of equanimity might turn up.

To do this means remaining alert, aware and actively engaged. To work better with, not just  lifes limitations and frustrations, but also its everyday opportunities and joys. Even then, things can change and we not notice they've changed; what once was challenging a tendency in yourself, morphs into a stoical accommodation of it. Actively practising along with, turns into passively putting up with. Which isn't to say learning to live with pain for instance, can't be a practice, it can, but the emphasis has to be on remaining alert and active in your responses, adjusting your approach according to both pain, mind and emotions. You can't sign off on a practice, and it remain one.

There is a constant game of tug and war going on between worldly and spiritual desires. Quite frankly,at times it can be difficult to tell which one is pulling you, because whether they succeed or fail, both can leave you with your arse caked in the excremental mud. Maybe that's the point really; right or wrong, skilful or unskilful, positive or negative, success or failure, things do get incredibly mucky. There's some value in being confused for a short while, it places you on the cusp, so things could swing dramatically either way. Humiliation on the one hand, insight on the other. Practice in everyday life often means being prepared to get our hands, mind and heart dirty, because in the middle of the filth we may discover something of greater value ~ a jewel of insight, not just buried in the shit ~ it is the shit itself. As Sangharakshita tersely expresses it:~

"You have to really wallow in it before you know its muck"

Hakuin recounts an incident in his life as a disciple, where he has thoroughly convinced himself that he's not only had Insight, but that he was really fully Enlightened. So he goes to visit his teacher just to have him rubber stamp it, to garner official approval for a Master. However, Hakuin is mistaken in his spiritual self assessment, his teacher rebukes him and sends him away with a flea in his ear. Despondent, and humiliated he trudges home, his mood reflected by the torrential rain and the path ahead of him that is treacherous with deep puddles and slippery mud. He trips, loses his balance and falls face first into the largest and muddiest of puddles. Drenched and dirty right through to the skin, he pulls himself back up. As he does so he finds the whole thing intensely amusing, and starts laughing uproariously at this apposite indignity life has served up for him ~ what a fool he has been - and in that moment he has a realisation, the very profound Insight he mistakenly thought he'd had earlier.

This story demonstrates that self deception, status seeking, arrogance and conceit can be as present in a Buddhist, as they are in anyone. Its tragic, but actually all too common. However ,though we may fall for our own self- delusion, everyday life has a tendency to throw the crap back at us, like flotsam washed up on a beach. These resounding slaps to our ego, mirror our vanity back at us, providing an opportunity for real insight should we see it and then chose to take hold of it. Awareness, when clear of the obstructions we place in its way, will naturally be drawn by experience of suffering into areas where we don't normally look, to where those delusive desires and wrong views about self and permanence hide themselves.

There's a traditional Zen phrase that goes as follows:~

"No one has fallen on the ground, who has not risen without using the ground."  

Battling, living and working with everyday life is sort of like that.

Friday, August 21, 2015

DIARY 133 ~ Colluding Creatively with Change

Since Windhorse closed in April my work life has been in a state of a evolving flux. One minute I think my future work situation is settled into a predictable routine, the next its ruffled its back and unsettled itself again. I sort of hesitate to say anything about my current set up lest it puts a hex on things. The amount and type of work I'm doing for Casey's Yard is in an experimental stage; can they provide me with enough work to meet my basic income?  Thankfully I'm getting other occasional work from Windhorse Trust that is helping keep my head above water. I have to keep reminding myself that its still early days, just four months since finishing at Windhorse, so my future work pattern is unlikely to have finally established itself yet. Something is still being worked out between myself and reality even as I write this.

My aim to do eighteen hours work a week, is happening, but it is proving to be quite variable, if not vulnerable to change. Nothing ever turns out as you'd imagined  or wished it to be.  Casey's Yard is casual and non contractual work, but it is regular and they are lovely people to work for. Nevertheless, when and how much I work changes week on week, so creatively making the most of my days off is difficult, on a 'finding your groove and staying with it' level. Without some regularity I don't find it easy maintaining momentum on Jnanasalin and I's plan to start a website selling handmade goods and refinished furniture. We are making progress, but its more a slow shuffle than a briskly walked pace. He and I are just too busy earning a living and recuperating afterwards,which does distract and dull creative momentum.

It's almost nine months since I had a retreat, a holiday or any kind of prolonged break. After this Summer of working hard in humid conditions, I'm a bit bushed. As it is, a day without working isn't quite a day without eating, but it can seem like that. A holiday or retreat is both an additional expenditure and a loss of income that has to be planned for in advance.Yet planning ahead confident I'll have the money when the time comes is not quite where I am at just at the moment. But if I don't get a break soon my energy and engagement will gradually deflate like a leaky balloon. I can sense the beginnings of it, I'm just a bit too pooped, too often.This year has felt like its been wall to wall with work or work concerns. I don't have any post Windhorse issues to work out, just a sort of psycho/physical/emotional exhaustion to give myself time to rest and recover from.

At Windhorse it became second nature how to make my work my practice. How you make cleaning a practice is something that's emerging, but I need space to reflect on more. Cleaning is,after all, an excellent example of an impermanent action, you do it one morning and its trashed by teatime, and I'm cleaning the self same flats all over again a few days later. It's reminiscent of the story of Milarepa and Marpa's Towers. Marpa asks his disciple Milarepa to build a tower, every night he leaves it almost finished but wakes in the morning to find the tower has been completely dismantled by Marpa. This happens not just once but over and over again. It's a parable that demonstrates how easily we become personally identified with a job, imposing a sense of purpose and meaning onto it that it doesn't deserve. Any job inevitably comes to define us, any job will come tumbling down of its own accord, because it is an impermanent thing just like everything else.

There is something about repetitiveness in a job that on one level provides stability and structure, but its predictability can prove quite taxing,if not testing, of ones tenacity, boredom and patience. There can be a growing appreciation of a jobs futility, yet there is also an integrating as well as a grating quality to it, its a teaching in a truer sort of humility. We are never quite as important as we'd like to make believe we are. Cleaning is the same task over and over again, simultaneously a meaningful and a meaningless action, which can be a bodhisattva activity; saving all sentient beings from filth,

Cleaning has low status in our society, but most low status jobs are not unimportant. Myself I'm not that bothered by what other people may or may not think, I find my own pleasure and satisfaction from doing any job as well as I'm able. If I'm to maintain any sense of personal integrity, its important I don't short change either myself or others, and the latter aren't just my immediate employers but includes the people who are hiring the holiday flats, At the same time I  know things cannot ever be perfectly clean, there's inevitably a flaw in it somewhere. The immaculate nature of the flats when I've cleaned them is an illusion I self-create around the task. My ego always attempts to stick some meaning and self-esteem onto it. but its just a barnacle clinging to the side of a ship that it depends on the hull for life and support. This doesn't mean I should decide to do a job badly, In the pure light of perfection I'm already doing that.

I've taken to cleaning things, not because they aren't clean, but because they haven't had much attention for a while. If you focus only on what is seen as dirty then that limits your perspective on why you're doing it. There is a broader sense of a place being well cared for too, and a caring for others pleasure in staying in the holiday flats. A room feels noticeably different after its been cleaned, and it isn't just that it looks cleaner, one senses the presence of the cleaner whose been there, the overall attention the place has been given. After a visitor has left, you also are left with an impression of the sort of people who've been staying there. Some live very lightly, and its hard to tell they've been there at all. Others leave a lot of mess and detritus behind them, loads of half eaten food in the fridge etc. Being a tidy person myself, I have to work constantly on not being too harsh and judgemental, particularly when I  have to clean up after them. Other peoples way of being collide with mine all the time, that is how life is. It's challenging.

I've been reflecting recently on how in the spiritual life, we can use our personal habits and prejudices as our starting point in assessing the spiritual value of something. As I said I'm quite a tidy person, and I can take that tendency to be tidy and turn it into a spiritualised quality of say a Zen like aesthetic or mindful attentiveness to things and environment. An untidy person might do the same, turning a lack of concern for aesthetics and cleanliness into a renunciation of worldly standards or viewpoints.  These both attempt to redefine and sanctify previously held views via Buddhist values This can allows us to carry on holding the exact same views about ourselves and others we had before we became a Buddhist, and put them beyond question behind a religious veil.  Whether we are tidy or untidy is spiritually speaking not that important, its all in our volitional intent. If we were to be so as a result of a lack of mindfulness, or a lack of care for oneself or others then that's a different matter to simply being tidy or untidy. When we sanctify our habits in this way we are being disingenuously untruthful not just to ourselves, but also to others. Paradoxically resisting change by colluding with Buddhist ideas and values. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

FEATURE 131 ~ Nigella Talks Dirty

Well, all I can say is she's been asking for this for some time. Her particular liking for flirty innuendo and extravagant use of language is something of a gift.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

DIARY 132 ~ Cousin's Day

For the last few years we've been having an annual gathering of all my cousins with their respective wives and husbands. They are generally quite good natured affairs with a lot of banter, teasing and boisterousness. I enjoy these days, but I do get quite tired of  the noisy garrulousness. I wouldn't say we are a close family, but we sort of rub along well with each other as long as we stick to the light hearted end of conversation. If anything else emerges it becomes quite obvious that I come from a completely different if not alien world to them  Jnanasalin was away on a solitary retreat this year so missed all of this.

This time we met at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. It's literally just up the road from the better known Chatsworth House. It's a uniquely preserved Medieval/Tudor house, complete with an intact Kitchen of the period, it was abandoned by its owners in the 18th century when they inherited Bolsover Castle, the Hall started being restored by them in the 20th century. It is quite an evocative and fabulous place to walk around.

Monday, May 04, 2015

FEATURE 130 ~ Mini Mansions- "Heart of Glass"

DIARY 131 - Responding to whatever happens positively

It's been my first Post-Windhorse week, which has been a week quite full-on with work. At the end of this I've been feeling a bit flat in energy and emotion. I've not slept well most of the week, but I do have a sense that leaving Windhorse, and seeing photos of the emptiness of the office and warehouse this week, has further fed the underground stream of emotions that there's not yet been the time for me to process amongst all this busy -ness.

The empty former Windhorse Warehouse

I've got a casual cleaning job just around the corner from Abbey House. It came about because the owner put a postcard through Abbey House's doorway asking if anyone was interested in taking it on. It's in a place called Casey's Yard which consists of three holiday flats. I've been doing occasional work for them during the last month of working at Windhorse. There's a possibility of them asking me to take over supervising the bookings, maintenance,cleaning and setting up. But as yet this has only been suggested and the details of how this would work in time and money has to be clarified. The hourly rate is good, but how much work there is per week is variable. Its also likely to change according to the season, we are coming up to high season so there will be plenty to do until September. Out of high season it probably will be more unreliable financially.

A flat in Casey's Yard

I've also taken on two days part-time work at a framing business run by Lester Robinson from my Mitra Study group. I'm familiar with taking orders from working in various Art Shops over the years, though this is the first time I'll be involved in actually making frames. My first week has been really rather enjoyable, lots of FAB machines that chop, punch and cut stuff up, that I'm gradually becoming more proficient in using. I'm not yet ready to be let loose on an actual customer's order, but soon perhaps. Financially these two days do provide a regular and steadier source of income.

The framing business I'm working for

I only want to earn enough to cover my basic expenditure, leaving, hopefully, enough spare time to make and develop stuff to sell on a website Jnanasalin and I are going to start soon.. For a few months I can accommodate a short fall in this income, whilst these other jobs work themselves into some sort recognisable pattern financially. If I'm still not earning enough then I'll need to look for further part time work. Previously I've been looking for and applying for jobs on-line, though so far its been the things that have come my way unbidden which appear to have been a more fruitful job source. There is something I like about this, of conditions throwing up opportunities and me responding to whatever happens positively. Instead of what most of us usually do, which is to try directing reality to give us what we think we would like or want to do.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

DIARY 130 ~ Closure comes in full circles

Here I am at the end of my penultimate week of working at Windhorse:evolution. The last four months have been really hard work, not just physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. Just trying to stay engaged has become a regular and very real practice. Working whilst working on letting go as I found myself grieving for what was not as yet lost. My mood has fluctuated dramatically from positivity and optimism to despair and sadness and played on all the tones inbetween.

I started working for Windhorse in July 1997 after a difficult year of winding up my own business, On that day in the Summer of 97 as I finally closed the doors and handed back the keys on one chapter of my life, I left to start a completely new Buddhist life in Ipswich. There I joined my first Buddhist community and began working part-time in Evolution Ipswich. My spiritual life and my life working for Windhorse;evolution have been woven inextricably together. Now, some eighteen years later there's been a similarly difficult four months as Windhorse has been slowly brought to an end.  This particular intensely Buddhist context, bookended by the closure of two businesses.will reach its symbolic and literal state of closure for me on Friday 24th April 2015.

It's a bit premature to review or assess what seventeen years working for the largest, the one and only Buddhist Right Livelihood Gift-ware business has brought, apart from my being ordained through it. All I can say is I've grown up and matured personally and spiritually in this context. Even though I will miss it and the really lovely people I've worked with, it does feel the right time to move on to something different. I might never have left had circumstances not arrived that made it inevitable I would.

A couple of week ago I led a Closing Ritual that brought the whole business together for its spiritual conclusion. What I'd devised appeared to work well, and most folk were moved by and appreciative of it. It fit the bill, weighty, cathartic,healing and uplifting, everything I'd hoped it might be, it proved to be. As ever it was great to have it off my mind once the day arrived and it was all done. By the afternoon Rupadarsin was beginning preparations to take apart the Stupa he'd so lovingly made thirteen years ago. Once the Stupa was dismantled there was nothing much left bar a few stencilled lotuses, vajras and flames on the warehouse floor to suggest this was anything other than an ordinary warehouse. Things have definitely felt different since then. Windhorse feels more like a workaday office and warehouse space where something rather unique once used to take place,

People have left in phases, some in February, then the end of March, then this Friday, and the final few, including me, at the end of next week. Each time this exudus has held a certain poignancy and emotional tug, that has grown deeper with each repetition. Some of these people I've known for my entire time working for Windhorse, a few I've known from years before even that. I will obviously see some of these folk again, if only at the Buddhist Centre or on retreat, though my path undoubtedly will never cross with others ever again.

Today, the final bit of warehouse racking was put on a truck and taken away. The warehouse will soon be an empty shell once more. Nothing much will tangibly remain. The dust is settling over the warehouse floor and the smell of burning incense will soon be only vaguely sensed. A whole world has dissolved into air in a matter of weeks.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

FEATURE 129 ~ Windhorse Closing Ritual ~ What we have Dedicated

An adaption I made of Triratna's Dedication Ceremony to mark the end of Windhorse's Closing Ritual.

What we have dedicated

We have dedicated Windhorse to the Three Jewels:
To the Buddha, the ideal of Enlightenment to which we aspire;
To the Dharma, the Path of the Teaching which we follow;
To the Sangha, the spiritual fellowship with one another which we enjoy.
Here was no idle word spoken;
Here no unquiet thought disturbed our minds.

To the observance of the Five Precepts, we dedicated Windhorse;
To the practice of meditation, we dedicated Windhorse;
To the development of wisdom,we dedicated Windhorse
To the attainment of Enlightenment,we dedicated Windhorse
Though in the world outside there was strife,here there was peace;
Though in the world outside there was hate, here there was love;
Though in the world outside there was grief, here there was joy.

Not by the chanting of the sacred Scriptures,
Not by the sprinkling of holy water,
But by our own efforts towards Enlightenment
did we dedicate our work at Windhorse.

Around this Mandala, this sacred spot,
the lotus petals of purity opened
Around this Mandala, this sacred spot,
the vajra-wall of determination extended
Around this Mandala, this sacred spot,
the flames that transmute Samsara in to Nirvana arose.

Here we walked, Here we sat,
Here we talked, here we were silent
Here it was that we practised,

Whatever the future may hold
May our mind become Buddha,
May our thought become Dharma,
May our communication with one another be Sangha.
For the happiness of all beings,
For the benefit of all beings,
With body, speech, and mind,
do we dedicate our future paths

Group photo after the ritual

FEATURE 128 ~ Windhorse Closing Ritual ~ Verses to the Earth

Some verses I wrote to mark the middle point in Windhorse's Closing Ritual

Verses to the Earth

We who have worked here for many years,
have seen men and women come,
and men and women go.

The earth alone will remember us,
The dreams that were realised,
the dreams that were broken
The tales and myths of our collective endeavour here.

We ask the earth to remember our aspirations and experience
The history of what has taken place here,
may it be recollected and upheld
the countless faces, past and present who made their work right livelihood,

all those who worshipped the Buddha,  
all those who practiced the Dharma,
all those who created a Sangha here.

To this
May the earth bear witness
May the earth bear witness
May the earth bear witness

Saturday, March 28, 2015

FEATURE 127 ~Windhorse Closing Ritual ~ Stupa Visualisation & Recollection

Here are the words to a visualisation & recollection that I wrote for the opening part of Windhorse's Closing Ritual on 26th March 2015.

Photo by Shakyakumara

The Windhorse Stupa ~ Visualisation & Recollection

Consciousness ~ Blue Sky into this appears

Imagine the Windhorse stupa floating in the middle of a vast cobalt blue sky,

Earth  ~ Into this we put
The dust everywhere in the warehouse and in computer keyboards, the mouse droppings, the feeling of concrete beneath the feet, the weight of inner and outer box sizes, of palettes of lever arche files, the dense texture of wood and metal of desks, the pulling and pushing of a palette truck, trolley or fork lift, the touch of plastic computer screens & keyboards, the sensation of being down the end of a forty foot container, of driving a van on a motorway on an open country road, of eating cake, the sense of our body mass as it works, stands, sits, walks or takes a nap, the earth is where our ideas, thoughts, plans, organising, dreams, aspirations grew from, our care for each other, the amount of work we have to do, the responsibilities we hold, all of these place a weight upon our shoulders. All these things ground us in the world of gravity, in the everyday here and now.

Water ~ Into this we put
The pounding of our blood when we worked hard, the moistness of cups of tea and coffee in our throat, the rumble of heavy rain on the metal warehouse roof, the rolling boil and steam of cooking food, water condensing and forming rivulets on windows, the soapy wipes as the windows were cleaned, the moistening of stamps, sweating in the warehouse in the height of summer, washing down the outside of cars and vans,the flow of newly arrived boxes from a container, the flow of work from an effective team in tune with each other, going with the flow of calls one after the other, filling oneself up with inspiration, being a glass more than half full, observing the eddies,flows and drift of your emotions and responses, the flow of arisings and ceasings year on year, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second. Little births and little deaths.

Fire - Into this we put
The heat from tea urns, the warmth from radiators, the hum of the warehouse heating system, sunbathing on the grass in lunchtime, yoga and tai chi outside in the summer,
in the heat of the moment, the anger and passion behind our disagreements, the fire of our animosities, the warmth of friendships, the energy we have applied in pursuit of the good, the fire of wisdom, ethics and meditations, the fire of self-belief and confidence, the fire of work as spiritual practice to burn up our unskilfullness, our confessions, the incense and candles we’ve lit as offerings, the tantric periods, the personal cremation grounds, giving more of ourselves, trying to transform not just ourselves but also the world, these have been the flames transmuting samsara into nirvana.

Air - Into this we put
All the hot air warming the building, the warm air rising in the stairwell in summer, the breezes blowing through opened delivery doors, the perfumed smell of incense wafting and permeating the atmosphere, the smell of dinner as you approach the canteen, the smells of coffee, tea, motor oil, paint, wood, earth, sweat, plastic, cloth, nag champa, marker pens,dust, anti freeze,fresh cut vegetables and herbs, newly mown grass, the flavours of cooking, the sound of music, of sawing and hammering, into the air went our grosser motivations like the sound of our voices they disappeared into the air, the air absorbs everything but holds nothing, into the air went our spiritual delusions and our spiritual aspirations,into the air will go all the energy, ingenuity and effort we all put into this business. we cannot see it, we cannot hold onto it,  but still we know it is there.

Space - Into this we put

The echoes of working and talking ricocheting around the chamber of the warehouse, the sense of the vastness of its cavernous space, space is multi-faceted, able to encompass boxes of stock, people, machines,racking, lighting, boilers,heaters, desks, chairs, filing cabinets, paperwork, ,musical instruments, a gym, a stupa, a shrine room, a kitchen, a workshop, a tea counter, a photocopier, plants, the sense of our bodies moving through this space watching, taking all this in, for 13 years we have been occupying,filling up and using this space, the space to raise money to support Buddhist practice both here and around the world, to support the lives of others and help alleviate their suffering. here we have been making space for the Dharma to be ever more fully present.