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Posts Tagged ‘presence’

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I’m not seeing the world in much depth at the moment. I know this because I’m growing once more prone to irritation, to entanglement in emotional snares. I should be old enough and wise enough to avoid such things by now, but instead seem at times set to become one of those grumpy old guys who shouts at the radio.Hopefully I can avoid this fate but the signs are not promising. I shouted at the radio last night, on the long, sticky commute home, then again at the TV, at the po faced presenter announcing with barely subdued glee the latest bit of grim news, of why we should be afraid, that the sky is falling and the world is going to hell. And all that.

So I took a walk, a circuit from home that included a large bite out of the Lancashire plain. It was a humid evening after heavy rain, the tracks just drying out. There were muddy puddles to splash through, and the meadows steamed sleepily, slugs and snails making their glistening trails as they slid ponderously about their business, unconcerned by the stupidity of men or the quest for wholeness.

I met one other person, a woman walking her dog. As we approached each other from opposite directions, I looked at her, intending to give her a polite smile, (to be translated as “I’m harmless”), but she was otherwise engaged, talking animatedly into her ‘phone. I noted how her dog shuffled along with a reluctant gait and what appeared to me to be a dejected expression, as if the poor beast lacked attention and had long given up expecting any. I reeled the smile back in, did not bother to say hello, and carried on my way.

The plain is not an overly stimulating place, no sense of Wow in the scenery, just a gridwork of straight tracks, laid down in the long ago, and always disappearing into the distance like an artist’s simplistic study in perspective. The tracks are flanked by deep, almost defensive ditchworks, also thorny hedgerows barring access to the vast meadows beyond, where they grow wheat, potatoes, carrots, oilseed, sprouts, barley, cabbage, and weeds. But for all this seasonal vegetal variety, the view is unchanging, the only real interest being in the sky which is at times a wide and ever moving canvas of delight.

Last night it was beautifully animated, the dusky hour rendering broody contrasts in colour and a full pallet: vanilla, tobacco, washday white, murky grey and steely blue. The atmosphere was dynamic, displaying the whole geography book of cloud types – the low and creeping, the exuberantly puffy, and the ominously towering, and I could see heavy showers slanting down as they swept the horizon. We lacked only lightning bolts to complete the story.

It being a circular walk, I met the woman again some thirty minutes later, still talking into her ‘phone. I did not bother to look this time, but kept my eyes alternately on the track, and on the sky.The dog’s spirits had not rallied much. In its weary glance I caught a twinkle of past memories, of balls tossed, of splashing shoulder deep in ponds to fetch sticks, of having ears fondled and belly tickled, tongue lolling at the simple pleasures of a dog’s life. But such things were a long time ago, I suspect.

There were just two of us out that night, but only one of us had noticed the sky, and the fact of my wry observation of this fact told me I wasn’t really seeing it in much depth either. What was it to me that the woman had spent the whole time talking on her ‘phone instead of being simply “present” in the world? What was it to me she might have seen more in that night’s episode of East Enders, or Corrie, or Emmerdale, than in that glorious dome of sky? Why could she not have talked instead to her dog? Made him happy instead of trailing him along like just another dull task in hand? What was any of that to do with me?

Ah, but when we are out of sorts and irritated by what we see as the apparent shortcomings of others, I find it is usually something in ourselves that’s crying out for attention. And is depression of the spirit not always presaged by the black dog that’s given up on expecting to be noticed?

Reading back into my diary, peeling away the years, I feel a greater depth in my words a decade ago than now, and fear more recent times have fetched me up in shallow waters. But then again I find passages that suggest I have always felt this way, that an aversion to shallowness is one of the permanently bounding conditions of my psyche, the other being a paradoxical fear of drowning in waters that are out of my depth. So I oscillate between the two, reaching back into the past for that mythical hoard of depth and wisdom, and fearing tomorrow for its inevitable loss.

It was a shame though, I mean that the woman missed that beautiful sky. Feeling my own presence beneath its dome, I was granted sufficient grace to return home in less of a mood for shouting at the radio.

How often though we hurry by, lost in the world of our thoughts, or caught up reacting to the thoughts of others. The whole of human society is made up of the things we either think or have thought into being, and much of human thinking is prone to fault, yet still it consumes us; we think that to think is the most cherished of all human gifts. By contrast, the world does not think at all. It just is, and this lends it a stillness which, if we can only transcend thinking for a moment, allows to to see ourselves in the wider context, in the third person so to speak, as a portal of life, unique and sparkly-small beneath that simple dome of sky.

There are those who live to move and shape society by influencing thought, but I am not one of them – at least no longer. I accept this may be a fault, that there may be things, thoughts I possess, that might be of benefit to the world, but in the world of thought, influence must be won, fought for, talked for animatedly like the woman on her phone. And I am not a talker, not a fighter. I am too remote, withdrawn from the world, and by ambition set only to become more withdrawn, an ever greater space between myself and the noise of thought and the glitter of the ten thousand things.

Being nobody, going nowhere – the Buddhist meditation. I am nothing. Our only purpose in life is our awakening to that sobering revelation, or if we already suspect it, then to its acceptance, that life is a journey to nowhere if it does not lead eventually into silence, into the realisation of nothingness. But this is not the nothingness of a dead thing, but the emptiness of pure presence and one has only to experience the most fleeting moment to feel also the joy in it and to know viscerally, this is a direction that is intrinsically true and worth the years of nurturing.

I do hope that poor dog cheered up when it got home.

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keys

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

Presence is inner space. It is stillness. It is making room inside ourselves for the primary essence to return to conscious awareness. Without presence, our lives are dominated by our thoughts and our memories, and we mistake them entirely for who we think we are. Only when we still the mind, when we rise above the flow of thought and memory, do we invite presence and reconnect with the authentic self.

So, try this for a moment:

Sit down. Take a deep breath. Focus. Don’t reminisce, don’t anticipate the future. Narrow your sights to the present moment, and above all STOP THINKING! Do it now.

Did it work?

No.

It’s impossible to stop thinking. And anyway, we have to live, to work, to take care of our families, get through college, pass exams, fix the car. Try doing any of that without thinking! It seems “presence” is not only a difficult thing to attain, it’s also impractical and unhelpful in our everyday lives. So, do we live as we should, or do we retreat to a cave and nurture presence instead?

Actually, presence is helpful and practical; it’s just a question of how we get there. If we can somehow create that space within ourselves, we can move beyond our thoughts, rest in spaciousness, and from there recognise our thoughts for what they are: mostly imposters and prophets of false doom. We think when we need to, but we no longer confuse “thought” with “identity”.

The deliberate cessation of thinking is impossible. Even to attempt it is only going to make matters worse, risking thoughts of self loathing when we inevitably fail. We should think more of “presence” as a state where our thoughts proceed at a more measured pace, and where we no longer find ourselves caught up with their contrived chains of endless urgencies:

We must do this, we must do that, or this won’t happen, and then we won’t get that, so we won’t be able to go there, and so and so won’t like us any more, and then we will be unhappy,…

If we can distance ourselves from the chain of thought, it’s a start. And indeed, if we sit quietly we find it is possible to observe the run of thoughts from a place within ourselves, without actually engaging them. We merely watch their coming and going, without judgement. If we feel our emotions getting hung up on particular thoughts, we press them gently aside. This is a powerful practise, and we find, in time, moments of deeper presence creeping into our lives of their own accord.

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

There are many ways to nurture presence and they aren’t that difficult. They require a little imagination, and the cooperation of the ego. But that they require Ego’s indulgence is the reason so few of us make way in this search for presence – egos, being entities comprised entirely of thought, are not naturally inclined towards the cessation of thinking.

Try this instead:

Look at your hands. Now (in a moment) close your eyes. How do you know your hands are still there? Because you can feel them. But what are you feeling? You are feeling the energy of the body. It’s particularly noticeable in the hands. Now breathe in, and very gently out, and breathing out, focus more on the feeling in the hands. The feeling grows stronger. Breath, it seems, can help focus stillness and amplify one’s sense perceptions.

Remember this.

Using the imagination as the vehicle, and the outward breath as the energy to drive it, it’s possible to explore more of the body this way. Thus, we discover similar feelings in our arms and our chest. The region around the heart and the lower abdomen also respond strongly to the caress of breath-assisted imagination. The more we practice, the stronger and more readily these feelings come to us. And at some point, while we’re doing all of this we realise we’ve not been thinking about anything for a while. We have become still, we have become more “present” in the body, and we feel calmer. This is a very effective practice on the road to presence.

But there’s more.

When we become familiar with this feeling of centred calm, secure within the body, we begin to see and feel the outer world differently too. I’m looking at my keys – familiar things – but I realise I hardly ever truly see them, because the mind is not interested in them as they actually are. It labels them “keys” and moves on because it has so many other things to think about.

But, observed in stillness, a deeper dimension is revealed to my keys – the shape, the colours, the myriad indentations, the fall of light upon them, the reflections, the highlights. Be warned though: the mind may have trouble here as thinking tries to reassert itself. We might try to think about the keys: What doors do they open? This one is looking worn out and maybe I should replace it; I wonder if the battery is okay in my little torch thingy. Should I test it?

We cannot observe in stillness while we are engaged in thought. Thoughts are like stones tossed into the lake, breaking up its morning stillness. In stillness we accept only sense perceptions as they come to us – here primarily our vision, but we can also bring the ears, the nose and the sense of touch into play. But however we observe the outer world, we simply let it be, without analysis or judgement. We sense the world without thinking about it and if we’re doing it right, the feeling that arises is one of calm alertness.

Experienced on a larger scale, say in the outdoors, in the natural world, observing without judgement the tremble of every leaf and every blade of grass, this feeling of presence can be very powerful indeed, but as the lesson of the keys reveals, it can also be experienced in the minutiae we oftentimes simply overlook. And the observations need not be of static things. We can observe movement just as dispassionately and discover the stillness in it (stillness in movement) It can be experienced even in those things that we might consider a chore – ironing clothes, clearing out the garage, mowing the grass,… or washing the pots.

Master, when will you teach me?
Have you eaten?
Yes.
Then go wash your bowl.

Perhaps we should be more willing to embrace those mindless tasks for what they have to teach us.

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The_ScreamThe question the soul asks is this: why do some aspects of my life make me happy, while others make me suffer? Then we add the corollaries: number one: why is happiness so elusive, yet the potential for suffering so abundant? Second: how do I nurture more happiness and keep the suffering to a minimum?

The first corollary is concerned with philosophy and metaphysics: what is suffering? The second is more concerned with the practicalities of every day living: How do I make the suffering stop? How do I feel good about myself, about others and my place in the world?

The nature of suffering is a complicated thing; a good deal of Buddhism is devoted to its study, so I’m never going to boil it down to a thousand words. It can however, be usefully personified as an entity, one we imagine living inside of us. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls it the pain body. This is just a way of thinking, you understand. The pain body is not an evil spirit, nor an autonomous being – though it can behave like one; it’s just a very primitive part of who we are, and it loves to suffer. And where there is no suffering, the pain body is adept at creating it for us.

It’s hard to believe anyone would choose suffering as a way of life, but many of us do – not consciously of course, but more by misunderstanding the dominance of the pain body in our lives. Unchecked, the pain body grows and dictates our responses to more and more of life’s situations. But all is not lost; to shine a light on the pain body is also to shrink it. And a world observed without the presence of the pain body, is a very different world indeed.

One of the most powerful tools in this respect is nurturing “presence” in our lives. This is a very simple concept, but since the way of the soul is also one of infinite paradox, it can at the same time be rather a difficult concept to grasp, instinctively. As a first step we try to attain an awareness of our essential “self”. If we can do this, then all other things follow more easily. The “essential self” is not a vague new agey term. It means what it sounds like: it is the being we are, unhampered by all the thoughts and emotions. It is what lies underneath the storm tossed psyche. It is the very essence of who we are.

When we sit quietly, our mind fills with thoughts, some good, some bad. We might remember with fondness the good things, or we might feel something akin to physical pain at the memory of the bad. We might be fearful of upcoming events, things that worry us, or we might be looking forward to things we hope will make us happy.

If we try, we can sometimes rise above this stream of thought. The thoughts are still there, but we can now observe their coming and going without engaging with them, emotionally. We simply let them be. But if we think about it: in order for us to be aware of our thoughts, there must be an awareness beyond our thoughts, just as there can be no ripples on the surface of the lake without the water to carry them. So, are we the ripples or the water? What is this awareness that is aware of our thoughts?

Since we are most of us entirely identified with our thoughts and our memories, it can be difficult to imagine there is anything else beyond them. If we try to imagine it, we imagine it might be another way of thinking, but it isn’t. Primary awareness, the awareness of our essential self, is a place of deep stillness from where we can observe our lives without judgement, or thinking. We take the input from our senses, and make no comment. We let whatever is, simply be. It’s from this place, we get to observe the pain body at work, both in ourselves and others.

Do you know someone who never has a positive thing to say? Do you never feel positive yourself about anything? Are you a glass half empty person, or a glass half full? You might think it’s not your fault, that it is because of the insensitivity, the stupidity, or the downright cruelty of others that you suffer, or that you are somehow so “unlucky” circumstances seem always fated to thwart your happiness. But two people can be presented with the same life-situation, and see it entirely differently – one negative, one positive – and the difference is entirely a state of mind. It is the lack or presence of an active pain body.

Attaining presence we create a space in which we can observe, consciously, both ourselves and others, and it is from this enhanced perspective we can tell when pain bodies are active. The curious thing is, when we identify our own pain body, it shrinks back into the shadows. When we are aware of pain bodies awakening in others the important thing is to avoid them activating our own pain body, for pain bodies each know their kind and are most at home in one another’s company where they can feed upon the mutual suffering they whip up between them.

The pain body is responsible for much personal suffering and, through our relations with others, it is also responsible for much of the damage we do to them and them to us. Happiness is therefore a life lived without the pain body, but it requires us first to raise our self awareness beyond the level of the ego, or we might not even know of the the pain body’s existence. We mistake its painful emotional reactions as our own , and nurturing presence in our selves is the key to realising they are not.

But that’s my thousand words.

I’ll explore more on the subject of nurturing presence some other time.

Here’s more on the pain body.

And here’s Eckhart Tolle with the last word:

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barrow

Once upon a time I bought a house. It had been in my good lady’s family for generations, passed through the hands of several elderly relatives, and by the time it came to us it was in need of modernisation. One of the first jobs was to install double glazing. This required us to endure the peculiar methods of a long line of double-glazing salespersons, one of whom I remember, sat me and my good lady down in our front room and subjected us to a couple of  hours of death by Powerpoint presentation – or what passed for it back then.

His windows were terribly expensive, and we were so bamboozled by his convoluted facts we had no way of deducing if those costs were justified. What was also puzzling was that if we agreed to the installation, and then ten years later, on a certain day, if we rang a certain telephone number, we would get all our money back. What? Get our windows for free? How does that work then?

Whatever the merits of this scheme, we were so cross and impatient by the end of this presentation, I’m afraid to say we bundled the man out of the house without so much as a cup of tea. His departure was hastened, I recall, by my equally frustrated son, then about eighteen months old, hungry for his bedtime story,  hurling Thomas the Tank Engine books at him as he went.

The next salesman was a pony tailed, oily, orange tanned sort of man who drove a bright red sport’s car. My good lady was already bristling when he stepped over the threshold and he hadn’t said anything yet. But his speal was much more succinct than the previous chap – just a quick measure up, a brief explanation of the style and construction of the windows, then a straight forward price. I was astonished and relieved by how easy the process had been this time. I was astonished too by the price because it was a fraction of the other quotes we’d had, but now I was wondering to myself, how on earth they could do it for that? There must be a catch! Darn it, what shall we do?

I left it a few days, in the hope my intuition would guide me through what was quickly becoming a bit of a minefield, where logic and reason were no guarantees of avoiding a ripoff. So then I had the idea of  telephoning the pony-tailed salesman and politely asking him if I could just confirm a few facts about his windows – thinking to discover the catch as to why they were so inexpensive. But it was as if I’d insulted his mother. He became rude at once, even aggressive – calling me stupid, that I had sat for an hour while he’d explained all of this and now I had the gall to ring him up and ask the sort of basic effing questions I should have asked him before, when I’d had the chance,…

Yes, indeed. He was very rude. But I sensed something else was going on here, something I couldn’t see, something lurking under the surface, and rather than take his tone personally, get all cross and hurt, as perhaps I should have done, I took a step back inside myself, puzzled, and I tried to see the bigger picture.

There’s the story of a king who goes by night in disguise to seek the counsel of a humble monk. While in the presence of the monk the king assumes an air of deference, while the monk, a happy-go-lucky, ragged, impoverished character, teaches the king the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Then one night the king says, okay I’ve got all of that, but what I’m really struggling with now is this concept of the Ego. What is the ego? What’s that all about? At which the monk laughs, apparently in disbelief, and says what kind of a stupid question is that?

Of course at this point the king drops all pretence, calls the monk rude names, says he’s just a destitute monk and how dare he speak to the king like that? To which the monk says, now that, your majesty, is everything you need to know about the ego.

Returning to my rather more prosaic story about the double glazing salesman, I don’t know what caused that momentary gap to open up between what should have been my natural reaction of hurling back some retaliatory insults, before slamming the phone down and fuming in hurt and humiliation for the rest of the day, and what I actually did, which was to make a calmly reasoned guess at the likely truth of the matter:

He’d made a terrible mistake in the price he’d quoted me for those windows – and as far as commission went, all he’d be getting was a good telling off from his boss for the error. His only hope of recovering his position was if I didn’t take him up on the offer, which was by then already legally binding on his firm – so he insulted me, thinking to lever up the lid on my ego and give it a good slapping, then my ego would tear up the quotation – after all a sale lost was better than a sale he couldn’t afford. I thought about it, but then I took a risk that this peculiarly egoless entity I’d discovered lurking inside of me wasn’t too far off the mark; I forgave his bad language, and accepted his offer.

Double glazing companies come and go, proving like nothing else the Buddhist adage that all forms are impermanent. The firm who offered me that money back guarantee after ten years folded after just two – so I don’t suppose their magic money-back telephone number is still working now. The one that actually fitted the windows did better,  lasting around five years, but at least the windows they fitted are still looking like new after – oh, it must be fifteen years now.

I did see the pony tailed, orange tanned salesman again – he came to make some final measurements before the windows went in. I won’t say he had that tail between his legs, but he was a little sheepish. He did however have the good grace to apologise for his rudeness on the phone. I mumbled something about it being okay, that it sounded like he’d been having a bad day, and not to worry about it. He didn’t mention the price and I didn’t rub it in.

I don’t know what he’s doing now, but I trust he’s found a way of moving on. I’m sure there are those who enjoy manipulating egos in order to get what they want, but it sounds like a tiresome business, and dangerous too because a roused ego can cause a normally placid human being to become physically violent. But it can be dangerous too in that every now and then you’re going to come across someone who’s ego’s too sluggish to be of much use in your machinations, or it’s like smoke and only vaguely there at all, because then they might see through you and the best you can hope for when that happens is that someone genuinely lacking in ego would never think to hurt you.

Of course that I can look back on all of this and still feel a smug glow of satisfaction proves my own ego isn’t quite so far beneath the surface as I’d like to make out. I’ve a long way to go then along the path of spiritual realisation – sure I know that – but in my defence I’d also argue it’s better to have begun the journey even if I’ve got nowhere at all, than not realise there’s a journey to be made in the first place.

So, beware, once you start to lose your mind, you’ll discover there’s potentially as much wisdom to be found in ordering double glazing, as there is in the whole of the Tao Te Ching, that even men with orange tans and red sports cars can become, for a time, your most important gurus.

Good night all

Enjoy yourselves, but stay safe.

Michael.

 

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