Archive for June, 2009

From my Old Journal – April 13 2003-

The heart is a deep source of knowledge and we ‘think’ with our body. We need to recover our lost heart, as Mencius said, because when we recover our heart and its feelings we find out again how to live, we become whole again. The heart is both a physical organ, which can be diseased, and also an organ of feeling, which society abuses and ignores. It is also some kind of memory or cognitive organ. Wholeness is when the heart functions properly on each level- unconscious, body, feeling – all enmeshed together, running in sync.

June 19, 2009 at 5:11 pm Leave a comment

Launch of The Age Of Anxiety

Last week we launched the Age Of Anxiety onto the unsuspecting public with an interview on Radio Leicester with Rupal Rajani. Unfortunately we only had seven minutes discussion, but I was happy to at last begin to tell people about the audio. The PR onslaught continues tomorrow with two more interviews – one with Radio Northampton and a second with Radio Bristol. We are also hoping for some national newspaper coverage. 

Rupal said that she would try out the meditation herself and report back. I’m interested in getting feedback from people who try it.

June 18, 2009 at 4:16 pm Leave a comment

Transforming fear into courage

Some ways to transform fear into courage:

1. Live in the now. The future does not exist, and when you project your mind forward into it and imagine the worst possible consequences, then you are indulging in harmful and negative fantasy. If you can’t stop fearing the future, then really go into the future in a big way. Imagine what it would be like if your worst fears came true. You’ll find that you can see yourself dealing with it, and coming through
2. Deal with your present situation as objectively as you can. Don’t hide from it or deny it. Open those bills and letters and respond to them. If you can’t pay, ask for an extension. Can you gather all the credit card money you owe into one lower cost loan and manage your payments better?
3. Don’t freeze in fear. Fear and anxiety are contracting emotions. They send your muscles into contraction, make you hold your breath and force your body to surround the heart for protection. To counteract this you need to add expansion to your life. Open your chest with Chi Gong, open your heart with compassion. Yoga and tai chi are expansive exercises, and can help to open the body. Massage and self-massage of the muscles can help to relax them, and reduce tension.
4. Meditate and breathe to reduce stress. Allow your troubled and confused thoughts to rise up and pass away. Don’t follow them, don’t go down that track. Make sure you keep your mind clear and your body healthy. Don’t give in to despair. Maintain a positive approach to your problems.
5. Seek help. Talk to friends and relatives about your problems. Talk to a financial adviser.
6. Be grateful for what you have: family, health, friends. Life is beautiful. Don’t concentrate only on your difficulties, but be aware of the positive aspects of what you have in your life.
7. Engage the will to help you conquer your fear. An ancient Chinese saying is: ‘There is no weapon more deadly than the will’. The will is powerful, and you need to find ways to engage it and get it working for you. To engage the will, you first have to have clear intent. What is it that you want to do? If you can state that clearly to yourself, then you clear a pathway for the will to power ahead and take you there.

Transforming fear into courage is the same as finding freedom.

June 17, 2009 at 3:42 pm Leave a comment

Real Life or Second Hand Life- Which do you want?

When my daughter Cleo was very young, I was reading about quantum physics, and was interested in the question of what the universe is made of. So I asked her the question, ‘What is the world made of?’ and she gave me the answer, ‘The world is made of feelings, like happy and sad.“ A good answer, very direct and absolutely correct. The world we experience is ours, it is within our consciousness, and what we are intensely aware of above all else is our own feelings. We inhabit a universe of feelings, and this is first hand experience.

The following extract from How To Cook Your Life, with a commentary from Zen master Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912-1998) goes into similar territory.

The Zen practice called shikan-taza, which is translated as ‘just sitting zazen’ or ‘just sitting’, is the same as the Taoist meditation called Zuowang – ‘sitting and forgetting’. Both are sitting meditations where you do not concentrate or meditate on anything in particular, other than the reality and presence that is revealed to you as you sit. This means going beyond (or below or past) the level of thoughts and sensations and feelings and emotions and images that assail you while you sit. Once all these have come and gone, what is left is the basic awareness of being or of mind. The mind that we are talking of here is not the psychological or conscious mind but a more cosmic sense of mind in which ‘mind and environment are one’. It is a non-dualistic view.

Uchiyama Roshi quotes Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) to clarify this meaning of mind,

‘The meaning and scope of mind that has been directly transmitted from buddha to buddha is that mind extends throughout all phenomena, and all phenomena are inseparable from mind.’

So mind extends through all things, and all things are included within mind, which is what my daughter also understood. Uchiyama then puts this meaning through his own interpretation of how we view the universe (he means all phenomena),

‘To talk of our being alive implies at the same time that there is also a world of phenomena in which we live. We usually assume that the world existed long before we were born and that our birth is our entrance onto the stage of an already existing world. At the same time, we often assume that our death means our departure from this world, and that after our death this world continues to exist. Within this way of thinking a fabrication is taking shape which is not the actualisation of reality itself. The actuality of the world I live in and experience is not merely a conglomeration of ideas or abstractions.

We assume that there exists a world which you and I experience in common with all other human beings, that this world existed prior to our births, and that it will continue to exist even after our deaths. But again, this is nothing more than an idea. Not only that, we wind up thinking that we live and die within this world of fabrication. This is an utterly inverted way of looking at one’s life. My True self lives in reality, and the world I experience is one I alone can experience, and not one that anyone else can experience along with me.

To express this as precisely as possible: as I am born, I simultaneously give birth to the world I experience; I live out my life along with that world, and at my death the world I experience also dies. From the standpoint of reality, my own life experience (which in Buddhist terminology equals mind) and reality (which means the phenomena I encounter in life) can never be abstractly separated from each other. They must be identical.’

It is not that everything is ‘in the mind’ or that reality is only the physical and material environment. Both of these two extreme views are incomplete. The correct view is that mind (my daughter’s ‘feelings’) extends throughout all phenomena, and all phenomena are inseparable from mind. So your personal life experience is at the same time the world of reality, and the world of reality constitutes your mind.

If we fall into abstractions, or live through concepts (the fabrication Uchiyama was talking about), then we are cutting ourselves off from the direct experience of reality, and instead are living a kind of second-hand existence, not really rooted on the ground, but somehow floating above it, not really making contact. As Uchiyama says,

‘All too often we while away our lives, creating general assumptions and ideologies out of the thoughts that arise in our minds, and after having fabricated those ideas we finally dissipate our life energy by living in the world we have abstracted from them.’

Is this really the way you want to live?

June 16, 2009 at 12:33 pm 1 comment

A Spiritual Almanack – June

Hexagram 30: Brightness


fire over fire

The sun illuminates the sky while our inner illumination is the radiance of self-awareness, spreading thoughts and feelings from our deep heart’s core to the endless expanse of the universe.

The projects we start in spring begin to develop and blossom in summer. How can we nurture them so that they continue growing and do not fail prematurely? What we mustn’t do is to give way to doubts and anxiety and try too hard to help things grow.

The Taoist way of acting is to act without acting, and this is called wu-wei. It means not interfering, and has been translated as non-striving, not trying, or doing nothing. It’s a principle of the Tao, as the Tao Te Ching says,

The Tao does nothing
And yet nothing is left undone.

How can things get done when there is no doing? Wu wei does not mean literally doing nothing, but it implies not forcing things, being willing to sit back and watch as things develop naturally by themselves before making a move, rather than jumping in nervously and disturbing them. We must give up the sense that we can control things; all we can do is what needs to be done, and to let go at that point, trusting in the power of nature and the universe.

Vanda Scaravelli teaches that we can practise yoga with action in non-action, doing the asanas without the slightest effort.

Movement is the song of the body. Yes, the body has its own song from which the movement of dancing arises spontaneously. The liberation of the upper part of the body produced by the acceptance of gravity in the lower part of the body is the origin of lightness, and dancing is its expression. This song, if you can tune into it, is beauty. We can say that it is part of nature. We sing when we are happy and the body goes with it like waves in the sea.

We often believe that someone must be sitting in silence in the middle of a mountain retreat before we can say he or she is practising non-action. But taking no action does not mean folding one’s arms and closing one’s mouth. If we are simply content to let everything act by itself, then all things will be contented with their own nature and develop on their own. If we only embrace Tao and cherish simplicity, and allow everything to run its maximum course, then the world will naturally be contented with itself.

The idea that all things are accomplished without our control is described in the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna tells of the three gunas, or forces of nature:
The forces of nature are three: sattva, the light, clear, and serene harmony of pure intelligence and goodness; rajas, the fiery restless energy of anger, hatred, greed and lust; and tamas, the darkness of dullness and inertia.

Although the harmonious force of sattva is pure, giving light and health without obstructions, it still binds your mind through an attachment to happiness and knowledge. The restless active force of rajas is of the nature of passion, creating a thirst for acquiring worldly things and thus leading to the bondage of selfish attachment and compulsive behaviour. The dark lethargic force of tamas arises out of ignorance and deludes all creatures, binding them to sleepy dullness, carelessness and laziness.

Sattva binds you to happiness, rajas binds you to incessant activity, while tamas leads to confused thinking and bad judgement. The light harmonious Sattva is dominant when the light of wisdom shines from all the gates of the body. When the fiery Rajas is dominant, we see greedy behaviour, busy activity, restlessness, discontentment and desire. When the dark Tamas is dominant, there is a disinclination to act, ignorance, laziness, delusion and confusion.

The yogis who understand that the forces of nature are only the actors in the drama of life and can transcend Nature, attain the Supreme. When a yogi goes beyond the three forces of nature which constitute her mortal body, she enters into immortality, free from the cycles of birth and death. She is aware that the forces of Nature are merely playing their part, so she is able to be unperturbed by changing conditions, remaining steady and unmoved. She dwells in her inner Self, viewing pain and pleasure alike, seeing stones or gold or earth as one and the same, maintaining equanimity in the midst of pleasure and pain. She is beyond praise and blame and keeps a steady and quiet mind. For her, honour or disgrace is the same; and she has the same love for her enemies as for her friends. Surrendering all selfish actions, she has gone beyond the three forces of Nature.

We need to find a way of inner silence and peace that will allow us to trust the universe enough to let it dictate what happens, and not to force the world to fulfil our demands. This is what the Tao Te Ching means when it says,

Attaining utter emptiness,
maintaining single-minded stillness,
as things act together,
I thereby watch their return.

By maintaining stillness and emptiness, we trust that the world will support and sustain us. This kind of stillness transforms our striving mind into a perfect mirror, which reflects life perfectly, but doesn’t attempt to grasp anything. It becomes like a still lake high up in the mountains on a clear day, its surface unruffled by wind or rain.

Chuang Tzu explains:

Heaven does nothing, and so maintains its serenity.
Earth does nothing, and so it has its peace.
By the union of these two non-active forces, everything is produced.
How vast and imperceptible is this process!
Things seem to come from nowhere!
How imperceptible and vast!
We can’t begin to see it!

All things in all their variety grow from this inaction.
Hence the saying, “Heaven and Earth do nothing, and yet there is nothing that remains undone.”

But can we find anyone who trusts the universe enough to live according to “doing nothing”?

June 15, 2009 at 10:31 am Leave a comment

Step by Step – From My Journal

April 7 2003 – 49th anniversary of my father’s death. Cleo (my daughter, then aged 12) was in Hampstead Heath climbing trees. Looking up at a large tree, nervously examining the possible foot and hand holds, she said, “I can see how to get up to the first branch, but what do I do from there?” I said to her that when she got up to the first branch she would know where to go.

The world would look different from there- new perspectives, a new way of looking at the situation, so what seems a problem standing on the ground disappears when we are sitting on the first branch.

So it is with many things. The problems which seem so massive when we begin disappear once we start, because the problems are made from a particular perspective, which alters once we change position. This is a universal truth.

To see life through universal truths is the best way to view it.

June 13, 2009 at 9:43 am 3 comments

There is Nothing In The World That Is Hidden

Studying ancient writings means to study our lives.
Thomas Wright

I’ve just been reading a wonderful book called How to Cook Your Life. It’s not a cook book, although it does deal with the job of a cook in Zen temples, a job called the Tenzo. The book is made up of a short essay called Instructions For The Zen Cook by the great Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200- 1253) and a commentary on that work by a contemporary Zen master Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912-1998). Uchiyama wrote an excellent book about zazen (zen meditation) called Opening The Hand Of Thought.

What is so great about this book? What’s great about it is how it deals with the levels of life and practice, and manages to show how the obvious and the subtle are both existing and interpenetrating each other at the same time. So on the surface the book may describe how the Tenzo manages his task of feeding the Zen Community, while at the same time the book explains how by viewing these tasks in the right way they become the essence of the Tenzo’s practice of Buddhism. He feeds and nourishes the bodies of others while he spiritually feeds himself.

When he was a young monk, Dogen went to China to study Ch’an (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. He arrived in China in April 1223, but couldn’t disembark immediately so had to stay on the ship. One day in May an elderly monk came on board to buy mushrooms from Japanese merchants on board. Dogen invited him to tea, and the two talked.

The monk explained that he was 61 years old, and had been a monk for 40 years. He had recently been made Tenzo at his monastery, and wanted to make a noodle soup to celebrate May 5th, a festival day. However, he had no mushrooms for the soup and so had walked the 14 miles to the port to buy them. Dogen asked him to stay and continue talking, but the Tenzo insisted that he had to go back that night to prepare the soup for tomorrow. A 28 mile walk to buy mushrooms.

Dogen asked, “Why, when you are so old, do you do the hard work of a Tenzo? Why don’t you spend your time practicing zazen (meditation) or studying koans? Is there something special to be gained from working particularly as a Tenzo?”

The old man laughed and remarked, “My good friend from abroad! You do not yet understand what practise is all about, nor do you know the meaning of characters (Chinese writing).”

When Dogen heard these words he was taken aback and felt greatly ashamed. So he asked, “What are characters and what is practice? “

The monk replied, “ If you do not deceive yourself about this problem, you will be a man of the Way. “ Dogen admits that he had no idea what the monk was talking about.

In July Dogen was at Mt. Ayuwang, and the Tenzo came to visit him. Dogen asked him about their earlier discussion. The Tenzo said,
“A person who studies characters must know just what characters are, and one intending to practice the Way must understand what practice is.”

Dogen asked, “What are characters?”
The monk said, “one, two, three, four, five.”
“And what is practice?”
“There is nothing in the world that is hidden.”

Kosho Uchiyama in his commentary on this story, gives us a version in contemporary dialogue:

What are characters?
This, that and the other; in other words- everything!
What is practice?
Everything you encounter in your life is practice.

He then explains what the old monk was conveying to young Dogen:

In living this life day by day, we encounter innumerable things and situations, and when we try to search for some fixed truth about them, we always fail. This is because the truth of life is found in each and every activity. Life is not a thing which is substantial or fixed; rather, it is our everyday activity. There is no way to see life outside of the vivid functioning of our every activity.

Meaning does not lie in any particular thing or in any particular practice, but in everything we do and everything that happens to us. This is our life. It is what we do and what happens to us. This was how the Tenzo looked on his life and how he fulfilled his job.

Kosho Uchiyama adds that the spirit running through Dogen’s text is that we must function with a clear mind and true sincerity in the actual situation in which we find ourselves, and not in one we have fabricated in our minds.

June 12, 2009 at 1:17 pm Leave a comment

The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.