On going soft in the head

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco

Jessica. By Thomas Hawk, San Francisco — The homeless girl with love in her eyes.

It was during a balmy mid-afternoon in Central Oxford that I and my friend of some 20 years’ standing gingerly negotiated a crossing of the busy street that had first been lain a millennia ago during Saxon times — then a loosely set cobbled carriageway running northwards up from the ford of the oxen at Grandpont, some half mile or so distant along adjoining St. Aldates. The year was 1992 and a palpably self-satisfied, Thatcher-hewn metropolitan hum of affluence pervaded the air in equal measure to the oppressive diesel fumes belching from the buses and taxis that laboured and lurched their way along Cornmarket Street towards Carfax, twixt which our bodies wove, breathing in unnatural rhythms, yet mysteriously embracing the effluvium with bare arms and wide open hearts, unburdened neither by concerns nor the otherwise ubiquitously lugged, logo-laden bags of well-sated shoppers.

And then it hit me. Like Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, like Drury’s hypnotically corrective stick — ich liebe dich! I knew I was now in love, and that I loved my friend; I loved the woman who brushed past us so irritably; I loved, too, the arthritic elderly gentleman who froze with anxious eyes in deliberating the manner of his crossing, and I loved the carcinogenic particles pumping through my lungs out into the yielding air, the dumb dummies posing erect at shined panes with their cold, dead eyes and synthetic elegance, the chaos and indecipherable din of a gaggle of garrulous language students, of horns a-honking, of the lumbering bells of St. Michael’s tolling optimistically, and of ancient Oxenaforda’s silenced, illustrious past; yet I was not only in love, as love was now in me as I turned, looking at my friend, laconically offering, “I feel great”, at which, with pursed smile, he said, “You feel it too, do you?”

A religious may call it God’s Presence, though in these days of Rationalism I should deem it the cranial release of monoamines and oxytocin. I’m unsure what to call it, ‘Love’ seeming as polluted a term as was Cornmarket on that summer’s day 25 years ago. Most will know of this state by whatever name or none; Buddhists call it ‘Mettā’ (Pali) or ‘Maitrī’ (Sanskrit), ancient terms denoting ‘kindly, loving feelings of amity and benevolence’, the Aristotelian ‘Philia’ and Judaic ‘Chesed’ meaning the same. It’s a state of mind, my friend and I feeling it contemporaneously in empathic triggering of a brain region known as the Periaqueductal Gray; mirror neurons firing sympathetically, some might claim. It matters little; what counts is its vividly transcendent actuality, its negation of isolative self-consciousness. Most interesting, is it being a state susceptible to nurturing in Buddhist mental culture practices.

I’ve no interest in quasi-religious cosmologies or in ritualistically indulging spiritual performances of any hue; although I do enjoy evensong at nearby Wells Cathedral, imbibing both quietude and its glorious choral music as an uninitiated yet appreciative bystander. Still, there exist practices of mental culture advanced in ancient canonical texts that benefit us in contemporary life, easing burdens and providing solace; moreover, quieting our troubling, nascent neuroses and supplanting them with those feelings of Mettā — the amity and benevolence that so readily mirrors in encounters, be they with friend, stranger, or foe. Yes, foe too, as in the culture of Mettā we extend the feeling even to those to whom enmity is harboured, reorienting our former negative emotional predispositions. In our polarised, hate-drenched world, now moreso than ever I find this quiet mental skill an incomparable boon.

People are hurting; they are fearful in a world at its most perilous juncture since October 1962; greater still given AUMF and AGW. Our individual deep traumas arising from horrifyingly common sexual and physical abuses, and the acute stress disorders brought on by profound adversities or our innate neurological imbalances, must be addressed by professional clinical means. Mettā is not a cure-all or some nostrum for the naïvely credulous; rather it is an engaging of focused, potent feeling which conciliates an agitated mind, loosens nervously held tension, and eradicates discordant enmity. Buddhist psychology addresses the subtle absence of contentedness which pervades consciousness in varying degrees, ubiquitously so. We tolerate this just as we might static in radio reception, or the buzzing of our refrigerator. Mettā ameliorates this negative hum, softening our mind and social interactions.

Mickie his name was, the weaver betwixt buses, he of the mirror neurons, my fellow choker in the pack. After that day he began to develop the mental culture of Mettā so as to be able to auto-intuit that same sense of amity and connection whenever it was helpful. He dissolved his former self-centricity — an affliction common to us all — and others would quietly remark to him that something was different, he’d changed, in subtext asking what alchemy had caused this. Yet there was nothing in Mickie’s nature that isn’t present in others too; he’d simply learned to access the contentedness and amity lying dormant within humankind. I so admired him for cultivating his mind with Mettā, that faculty of intuiting a kindly benevolence which he gifted to others as much as to himself, they mirroring silently, unbidden. I think of it as him having gone soft in the head. If only I were wise enough, I would too.

Mettā very much: Marie Williams & Mickie Brough-T.

Contentedness embodied (Part One)

Old Couple in Kyrgyzstan. By Evgeni Zotov, Flickr.

Contented Couple in Kyrgyzstan. By Evgeni Zotov, Flickr.

As human animals we spend the greater part of our lives apprehending the world reflectively, as if peering through to it by means of psychical mirrors. Our minds evolved to affect this process unwittingly via constantly flowing streams of updating composite imagery, all unquestioningly taken as the world in itself – Naïve Realism made real. Such mirroring is presumed synonymous with our life itself too – all the sights, sounds, feelings, scents, tastes and thoughts that reflect to us, outside of which no phenomena may appear. These mirrored images are, for the most part, accurate reflections of what happens around and within us, and had our species not evolved to apperceive with this level of precision, then we humans may not be here on earth today. To that extent it is a success story, yet could our mirror-gazing existence be enhanced in the evolution of some quality we lack, yet innately intuit? And may we at times glimpse that which we are yet fully to embody?

A digression: a young woman feels she should take up meditation and so arranges to meet the abbess of a Buddhist monastery. The abbess, having ascertained the woman’s suitability for meditative training, asks why she has requested instruction. In response, the woman explains that whilst her life is comfortable, secure, and untroubled, still she senses the absence of an unquantifiable contentedness of sorts. She appreciates that happiness is ephemeral, coming and going in accord with events, though a disquieting lack of a deep satisfaction persists, and she is left pondering if that felt void, and the contentedness yearned for, has parallels in Buddhistic conceptions of human existence. She senses a subtle distancing, as if life were obscured by a gossamer filter, or remained slightly out of focus, enquiring of the abbess if such thoughts were valid. If so, she asks, might evolution fix this ubiquitous glitch? Smiling, the abbess asks ‘how long do you want to wait?’

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Street Seller in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina.

Beyond the essentials of life, we human animals devote much of our time to realising this same contentedness. Rarely do we conceive of such efforts in those precise terms, thinking instead that we desire happiness rather than to dwell in contentedness. This is because happiness is an overt feeling, and the human is a feeling-driven animal by and large. Behind this striving for a felt happiness, however, in fact lies a knowledge that inheres within the body and which understands that contentedness is the supreme goal. To be content is to be utterly beyond all desire, and such a state is not dependent upon feeling in the least; rather is it more akin to a psychological freedom, one which is not subject to the dictates of desire and aversion, nor wrought by virtue of any conditions. The human body knows this; it is far from being any philosophical abstraction. That is why the young woman was accurate in her appraisal before the abbess, and also why in turn the abbess smiled.

Our fallacy is to mistake a mere mirroring of pleasant sensations for true contentedness; it is the inclination of the mind to seek out a vaporous flux of sensory gratifications and think they will satisfy the body’s quest for that which it knows to be within and realisable now – almost as if that same knowledge were a cellular memory. It is a different mode of memory though, one which cannot ever be laid down for later recall as if an object stored in the mind. Rather, it is the body’s knowledge of itself, as itself, not as an image of itself in a certain state, such as a mood or felt disposition, but as itself alone. Contentedness is not any visualised echoing within the mind, something reflected in the mirror of the psyche, and so cannot ever be manipulated into existence by recall, intellect or volition. It is neither a spiritual attainment, nor result of any endeavour, nor may it be invoked by behaviour or genetic birthright, other than that common to all humans.

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Beauty Salon in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina.

After many years of earnest meditative application, the young woman, now in her forties, went for her afternoon stroll in a local park. She felt calmly observant, yet made no attempt at mindfulness and thought of nothing in particular. Suddenly, in an uncaused instant, a radical perspectival shift occurred, as if life had come into focus. The contentedness she had alluded to with the abbess arose, though not in any mirroring. Her mind leapt in so as to make sense of it all, though quickly she came to laugh at the futility of its blunted effort, as what presented needed no qualification, being starkly obvious in its perfected ordinariness. She knew now that the contentedness she had sought in life could never have attached to any subject, nor absorb into any seeker, as that same seeking subject was merely her own mind-creation. It was as if awareness were now unobstructed by past distinctions imposed by the mind, and the waiting the abbess spoke of had now ended.

Contentedness was now embodied, and she knew that whilst her body had realised itself, and with it her mind too, neither were in truth discrete entities standing in contradistinction to one another; they were both existent yet as perspectives of each the other. She saw that subject and object, as apprehended, were only ever psychical creations, so too that the point of centrality which localised her body and self-image was not so for awareness itself. She gazed over at the distant Chestnut trees, her mind enquiring as to what was so different, yet somehow the same, and ordinary. What was it that was imbuing her with this total desirelessness and ease at a perfect ordinariness? The park, the trees and she of course existed as spatially referenced in awareness, yet awareness also saw itself as itself, as non-local. Her self-centricity had dissolved, yet she remained, embodied as pure awareness and the contentedness she always intuited she had been.

Wasting time – an expert’s view

Photography: Tibor Végh, Hungary

Photography: Tibor Végh, Hungary

 

How do you waste your time; how do you squander what surely is that most precious asset and which itself comprises all that ever is, and ever was, your life? Maybe you gawp mindlessly at the TV, prevaricate over what needs to be done, fixate upon the inconsequential, or seek perfection in what is never perfectible. What’s your preferred choice?

Or maybe you don’t waste time at all. Maybe your life is so driven and full of purpose that you dare not waste a minute of it. So you fill it with your productivity and goal-seeking, with reaching attainment and a sense of betterment. Days pass with what seems an increasing rapidity; the horizon of life foreshortens in your mind; you’re thirsting for time.

I spent the early part of my adulthood transitioning from a seemingly innate ability to waste time effortlessly, to doing so with a lot of effort. My student days amounted to a masterclass in wilful underachievement and insouciance. I could have written the book on it had I not then inclined to passing my time in a netherworld of do-nothing-ness.

Slowly, and a little reluctantly at first, I learned how to waste my time through piling effort into everything I did. I went into business and worked long hours in London’s West End – Soho, the then grimy part – six days a week, ten hours a day. I made money as the business grew, but was still just wasting time in never approaching my life’s purpose.

So there came a point when I needed to take stock of this time wasting. I was pretty darned good at it, though always sensed the profligate life was misdirected. I came to realise my squandering simply served no meaningful purpose at all; and it slowly became evident that behind each purposeless day was an undeniable pull towards contentedness.

And this was my life’s purpose; it was to find that contentedness. If you think deeply about it, you’ll realise that this too is your purpose. It’s true to say that however you’re wasting your time, or however furiously you’re employing your time, the fundamental motivation is to know this sense of contentedness. Peel away the layers and you come to just this.

We fixate upon our means of feeling secure, of feeling loved, of feeling respected, of feeling knowledgeable, of feeling better than, of feeling worthy, of feeling wiser, of feeling acknowledged . . . there’s no need to continue; it’s a very long list. And yet all of these means fixate upon layers of experience that themselves can never produce contentedness.

And contentedness is the fundament of what it is that we want from life; it is, to that extent, the very purpose of our lives. If we look at our aspirations, and at the way we structure and pursue our life, we find the primary catalyst and motivation is contentedness. As we don’t know how to approach it directly, we get side-tracked in a host of fixations.

In a very real sense we’re wasting time. It’s not that our relationships, our careers or our learning are futile. These pursuits have purpose and meaning, and at times can be emotionally fulfilling. Yet they never of themselves create contentedness in any profoundly felt sense of the term. Contentedness has a passivity beyond all pursuit or endeavour.

This all begs a question of course: how do we live in accordance with our needs and obligations without wasting time? This is also to ask what practical measures we may take so as to keep in sight our most deep-seated objective – the actualised emotional and psychological state of contentedness. So how can we use our time so as to fulfil this purpose?

A key requisite is to remain contemplatively aware of our intentions; and in particular, to explore the emotional causes of those intentions. In this way, we penetrate the superficiality of desire and becoming, so side-stepping the superfluous and vain. We’re now free to approach our life’s purpose; we cease squandering time and follow a path to contentedness.

Such a path necessitates this monitoring of our intentional stance – what emotional attitude underpins my current state of being? We’re almost always taking some stance or other, though mostly are unaware of it. Usually, there’s an aspect of desire, aversion, or of an inclining towards becoming which is rooted in self-identity – an attempt to morph the self.

This monitoring of our intentional stance is a highly practical measure that unravels the ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘why’ of our time wasting. It takes no effort, and can be applied during, or prior to, both mundane and critical events. Starting with the little things, we ingrain the awareness as a habit; as it becomes second nature we apply it to the bigger picture too.

We’re not automatons; nor are we slaves to old ways. In exploration we find a way out, so spending our time in fulfilment rather than seeking it. Examining life, we discover that behind all we ever sought was to rest contentedly in it. Life isn’t a becoming; there’s no arrival in seeking, and no enduring fulfilment in what’s sought. So why waste time in this way?

 

Behavioral awareness and change

Alan. By Chez Worldwide, Manchester

Photography: Chez Worldwide, Manchester

There’s a man I’ve known for a number of years who, despite his intelligence and sensitivity, has a behavioural problem he’s quite unaware of. This man is by no means unique in that regard; many of us are blinded to aspects of ourselves which in others we may well regard as failings. It’s a known phenomenon; we quite often take exception to the character traits of others that are prominent in ourselves too, though which we deny or remain ignorant of. It’s quite likely that you too may recognise this phenomenon in someone you know quite well.

When sub-consciously we recognise in ourselves a very similar characteristic to that which we disapprove of in others, there’s often a strong emotional response that appears as if out of nowhere. All the while, we deny access in awareness to this very same characteristic that we too abundantly possess. Whilst those around us may often see through the lack of self-awareness, we assiduously maintain our self-deception. So this is what the man I’m referring to does, and I thought it would be useful to write about how it’s affected him throughout life.

As I was saying, this fellow is intelligent; he’s a lecturer in the humanities department of a state-run college. He reads quite widely on the environment and politics, through evolutionary biology and anthropology, to current affairs and social trends. And like I said, he’s sensitive too; he recognises inequality and injustice in their many forms, and responds emotionally to any act of compassion he may witness or hear of. So you would think that most of the pieces are in place for him to be a reflective and self-aware man – someone who knows himself.

What this chap fails to see in his persona is an arrogance borne of impatience. In other words, his compulsively impatient nature leads him into making snap judgements in which he assumes he knows best. In a sense, these conclusions are logical, because if we resist understanding the position of the other, then what remains is only our own position or world view. And of course, we all assume our own views and opinions are best – if we thought they weren’t we wouldn’t hold them. So the impatient mind tends to limit its capacity to be informed by others.

Now of course, in his chosen reading, this man takes on board the views of others – he doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Yet this reading conforms to his world-view in that it’s self-selected; he reads what broadly endorses, or expands upon, his own set of beliefs. When it comes to the views of his social and familial contacts however, the shutters come down. His impatience impels him into snap judgements which invariably fail to grant any validity to the other. To him, it’s just a waste of time to listen to what is borne of the others’ life experience; to him it has no validity.

Naturally, this results in a tangibly felt transmission of high-handedness. There’s a palpable air of exclusion, a heavily qualified acceptance in which the other knows and feels what’s implied – that ultimately they don’t count for much. And all of this rebounds upon our man because he cares for his friends and family of course. And like him, his friends and family have sensitivities too; they know what they feel even though they may not extend those feelings into any analysis. They don’t need to; they know their feelings are true, and know how and when they arise.

So this chap I’m discussing who could know himself and yet doesn’t, unwittingly creates a distance between himself and those around him. He stifles his siblings and parents with his arrogant assumptions, which he regards as reasonable but which are solely self-validations. And he oppresses those who would be close to him in denying the validity of their experience. He’s blinded to all this, even though his culpability is quite apparent to others. Retrenched into self-validating views which he protects at the cost of his relationships; he in effect denies himself too.

If he were able to resist his impulse to judge prematurely, for once to be unconcerned about wasting time and the terrible possibility of suffering a little boredom, he’d learn much about himself through others. He’d see that each individual has a uniqueness of experience no less valid than his own, so having a valuable capacity to inform. Progressively gaining insight into his wilfully ignored and damaging past behavioural traits, his self-validating existence would gradually be supplanted with a new sense of engagement in which all around him would happily participate.

Instead though, this otherwise intelligent man remains intolerant of any whose views are unaligned to his own. Ungraciously rebuffing those who wilfully resist or simply ignore his own perceived correctness, he dismisses them with a passive aggression – sarcasm or hostile humour. Yet the others’ discounting of his stance was akin to his own behaviour reflecting back at him, and which sub-consciously he recognises as such. So he responds curtly, spurning the very thing he perpetuates in his own persona. He rejects this trait, though in others only – it’s hypocrisy.

The remedy entails receptivity and a willingness to listen, to set aside our impatient self-interestedness and participate in shared moments without pre-judging. In not indulging impatience, its opposite arises and we engage with others rather than being dismissive of them. If boredom or conflict arises in our mind, we accept this is self-generated – it’s our problem, not the others’. Rather than enslaving ourselves to impulse and alienating those around us through our behaviour, we put our house in order. We can change at any time in life; all it takes is the will to do so.