A number of months ago I ran a workshop on Mindfulness In Social Care to a group of newly qualified social workers. At the finish a close friend asked one eminent colleague what he’d thought of it. After some considerable thought he responded: ‘I enjoyed it but there wasn’t anything new’. He wanted to be surprised, to learn some fresh techniques. He wanted to be filled rather than emptied.
We are obsessed with the quest for the fresh and fashionable, when we need reminding of what we’ve already forgotten. The desire for newness has become a serious obstacle to seeing ordinary miracles, no longer appreciated by jaded eyes. We don’t see the world fully or properly any more. We don’t have the vital energy running right through us, like young children in a playgroup with their noise and bustle. Every single moment, those energetic chimps uncover something fresh in the hardly noticed — by adults anyway — sticks and stones of the playground.
My mother said that when very young I made steam trains from old shoeboxes and pushed them ceaselessly around the narrow hallway. We recall things rather than see them ever afresh. My father-in—law used to injure himself every year or so. Whilst he was working in London, his wife would radically rearrange the furniture. He’d come back on the train, enter the bedroom and leap on the bed, except it wasn’t there. It was across the other side of the room. The picture in his mind’s eye didn’t exist out there any more. We struggle with the great differences between our imagination and what exists.
There were once two students, both extremely proud of their teacher. They wished many others to appreciate him. A great opportunity arose for publicity.A new temple had been opened and respected teachers traditionally scribed their teachings on the fresh walls. At their request, the temple authorities gave permission for their guru to write an important message. Nervously they asked the great man if he’d write something. He agreed enthusiastically. They waited anxiously outside. The guru was in and out in a moment. Inside they saw the single miserly Chinese character for ‘ATTENTION’ on the far wall. It was very unimpressive, unlikely to attract any prospective students. They wondered how to raise this problem and eventually arrived at a solution.
‘Master. Your message is a little short’
He responded quickly: ‘Why didn’t you say’?’
He went into the temple again and exited almost as quickly as the first time. They rushed in to see. Now the message on the temple wall was much longer.
It read: ‘ATTENTION. ATTENTION. ATTENTION.’
ATTENTION? Nothing complicated or flashy, certainly nothing fresh, but if they couldn’t see the vital importance of mindful practice they didn’t deserve such a great and persistent teacher.
Montaigne (1958) noted:
‘Stupidity is a bad quality; but to be unable to bear it, to be vexed and fretted by it, as is the case with me, is another kind of disease that is hardly less troublesome, and of this I am now going to accuse myself.’
It is so easy to become chronically self—righteous and stupid. When you’re naturally dogmatic like me, it is very easy. Like Montaigne, I have a gift for bearing it with bad grace. I constantly struggle with the feeling that life is teaching me the wrong lessons; that I know best what I should be learning. Humility is an uncommon human quality and spirituality can become an effective cover for all sorts of arrogance. ‘I’m more holistic than thou’ is best avoided. We do need to take things apart, to ask shrewder questions — but also to avoid the pitfalls of self—cherishing and missing the whole picture. The Tao trail points to essential unity. This is definitely not some unattainable Holy Grail but an ever present reality that we stumble over but rarely recognise. It is a practice done amid the washing of clothes, using the vacuum cleaner and cleaning dirty saucepans. The healing takes place from where we are, not from where we might like to be. We turn away from trying to better ourselves and become what we already are.
The basis of all healing lies in being a vehicle for vital energy. Nothing special. This asks that we are gentler with ourselves and with others; learning to accept ourselves; that we recognise in our hearts the essential connectedness; surrendering our different images of perfection as deluded measures of the world and seeing it with reverence, honesty and love. As Sawaki Roshi commented: ‘Everybody is in his own dream. The discrepancies that exist between the dreams are the problem’ (Uchiyama, 1990)
I’ve supported my disabled friend Kevin for many years. I met him during my own training. He died in 2007 of a sudden heart attack. He’d been a great teacher to me. I’ve learned lots that I definitely didn’t want to learn, the heart of real spiritual learning. I’ve had to come down from the high mountain of all the books and academic research and genuinely experience the front-line actually working with disabled people rather than simply reading about it, much more challenging.
Kevin and I had very different dreams and scripts but they are almost certainly from the same play. In our heads, things are supposed to run smoothly and coherently, but they rarely do. He helped me to experience more fully the frustrations that emerge from the huge gap between ‘supposed to’ and actual life, and how and why we are both bewildered and disappointed by life’s constant ‘imperfections’. Like him, I’m usually seeking more control; wanting the world to be more as I imagined it to be. We were both profoundly disappointed with the world as it is, that constantly fails to live up to our expectations.
As we grow older, we both learn to live more comfortably with our everyday stupidities, rather than get any wiser. I get older rather than wiser. I experience my daily existence as continually tripping over the obvious, being mind-bogglingly insensitive and stubborn, and retaining an impassioned resistance to any major learning. In the past, I had a great tendency to hit myself really hard when falling from some presumed high standards. A great rage of disappointment would make my throat sore. Nowadays that happens rather less; not the attainment of any wisdom, just getting fatigued. I’ve grown a little more comfortable with the stupidity both in myself and in others. It feels more and more like a pair of old slippers.
This kind of stupidity arises because we lose our essential ‘beginner’s mind’. This does not involve some high standard to be attained or some subtle spiritual achievement. Beware of making it yet another examination. Dogen Zenjii expressed it well: ‘Each evening we die, each morning we are born again.’ If that really happens to us, we can bring freshness to each dawn, but mostly we cannot. Instead I carry the heavy stones of each previous day on my ever aching back — all those worries and concerns from the previous day, weeks or even years; still lying there, making it difficult to dance and even to sleep. Stones and rocks of guilt, blame, injury, sorrow, mourning — I’m sighing deeply whilst writing them down such an endless list. I rarely seem to shed anything, just add this heavy burden over the long years. I know something of my stupidity in that l write and talk too much and hardly ever listen.
We do need a beginner’s mind, that strips away our fixed notions and dogmas. ‘You can’t go in with preconceived ideas of how to “fix up” the situation. Once when starting some group training for GP’s, I was attacked by several group members because I remained silent whilst they expressed a number of overwhelming (to me anyway) expectations. As we’ve noted previously, beginner’s mind is different from ignorance. Observing students over many years, I have noticed that their semi-digested reading often obstructs the communication process. At worst the client feels as though he or she has been vomited over. The embryonic professionals are seeking significances and patterns that were in the books but not necessarily in the present experience.
Zen Master Dogen was given a salutary lesson in significance by a Chinese tenzo, the head cook of a monastery. In the thirteenth century, Dogen made a dangerous sea journey from Japan to China, surviving typhoons and pirates. After his arrival he met the tenzo, who had walked miles to buy shitake mushrooms — brought by the boat from Japan — to flavour the monastery’s noodle soup. Dogen was ready to sell him the mushrooms he’d brought, but so impressed was he with the old cook that he invited him to stay the night and have a meal. The tenzo declined, saying he had to return that same evening.
‘But surely there are other monks who could prepare the meal in your absence’?’
‘I have been put in charge of this work. How can I leave it to others?’ responded the cook.
‘But why does a venerable elder such as yourself waste time doing the hard work of a head cook. Why don’t you spend your time practising meditation or studying the words of the masters‘?’
The tenzo burst out laughing. ‘My dear foreign friend, it’s clear that you don’t understand what Zen practice is all about. When you have time please visit me at the monastery so we can discuss these matters more fully.’
Dogen had obviously never read the Tao Te Ching: ‘Cooking a small fish and ruling a big country, need equal care’. Dogen eventually visited this fine cook and the marvellous book Tengo Kyekun (‘Instructions for the Zen Cook’) was one result. (Wright, 1983) I keep a copy to me as it has been an inspiration over many long years, although I’m no great fan of Dogen — a bit too much like St Paul rather than Jesus for my taste. But the tenzois marvellous advice is to cook with what we have already: the herbs, the rice, the noodles and all our own skills and difficulties are in the cupboard there is no need for any others.
Listening skills are lifelong herbs, with wisdom and discipline, but only in brief flashes. Nothing is more important or more sacred to me than these tasks given to us to listen, whatever we are doing at this very moment. Our anger, impatience, stupidity, love and perseverance all flavor the delicious soup, along with Dogen’s shitake mushrooms, which we can now buy in the supermarket.
In my early twenties I also learned the hard realities of living on the street. I quickly leant that you only have to ask [homeless] people what they need and empower them to find their own solutions. The hard part of any genuine learning is to give up the ideas you already have, much harder than acquiring new ones. Later when I got off the street and entered into a profession I used go to the homeless planning seminar in Cambridge where I lived. There is a big and probably increasing homeless problem in Cambridge. The city council has developed a fresh overall strategy for dealing with it. lt is a clever plan, very much like the half a dozen other plans l’ve seen over the last 25 years. It is an excellent example of top—down planning. No homeless people were formally invited to this crucial seminar. The planners had precious ideologies that would have been swirled away by the direct experience of homeless people.
ln Japan they have the phrase shoshin, which means beginners mind ’. The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner s mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times or more ? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner s mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind. (Suzuki, 1973)
How can we possibly maintain that freshness and vitality in the things we do everyday? l am a stupid and complaining Zen monk, a great trouble to everyone, who has learnt hardly anything from the finest teachers, largely wasting their time. But there are one or two brief moments, when even l understand the long dead Chinese tenzo s message. We are not asked to become better persons, to be improved models — thank goodness. All that arrant nonsense is a further expression of disastrous craving, intense human suffering, deep discontent and splitting. Zen Meditation leads us boldly to be what and where we are. lf we follow the sitting we can uncover our true and original nature. Some of us are lions, yet many others are dandelions — it just doesn’t matter, we develop and blossom just as we are, without pretending to be anything else, better or worse than we truly are.
The Trappist Monk Thomas Merton had this to say of the meaning of the Tao without meaning:
The secret of the way proposed by Chuang Tzu is therefore not the accumulation of virtue and merit proposed by Ju, but wu wei, the non-doing, or non—action, which is not intent upon results and is not concerned with consciously laid plans or deliberately organized endeavours: ‘My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness . . . Perfect joy is to be without joy. (Merton, 1965)
We are happiest when unconcerned and not knowing whether we are happy or not. The more carefully we fire the arrow from the bow, the more likely we will miss the target.
So what is all this ‘living in the moment’? I don’t have any fixed answers anymore. I notice that giving complete attention to someone in distress is difficult. The mind plays many tricks with past and future, moving chaotically between difficult times and experiences.
I am quite serious in asserting that most of us in the mental health professions, are much of the time, to a surprising extent, not fully aware of our actual present. Much of the content of our consciousness is remembering, speculating, planning, . . . or carrying on a busy inner dialogue. More specifically we professionals, sitting with a patient may be diagnosing, ‘prognosing’, planning our next intervention, wondering what time it’s getting to be, etc. — we are only rarely being really open to our experience of self and other …. Engaged as we are with our own phantoms, we attend only sketchily to the other. Since he then seems rather pale and incomplete, we fill him our with our own projections and react vigorously to these (Enright, in Rowan, 1983).
I was reflecting on being really listened to, being profoundly heard. It has happened so few times and only for brief moments, usually in the formal presence of Zen teachers. Each experience was deeply intense and wholesome. Each time I felt both naked and relieved. I was seen for who I was, rather than who or what I might become. I was accepted just I was — warts and all. The social games and strategies I used were no longer necessary.
Two Zen monks set out for a monastery some distance away. On the journey they came to a river, swollen by unseasonal mountain rains. A young woman in formal dress was waiting, unable to cross by herself. The older monk picked her up and carried her through the waters. The monks walked on for ten miles in silence, but when they came into sight of their monastery the younger monk asked:
‘Why did you break the vows of our Order and have physical contact with that woman?’
The older monk replied: ‘I put that woman down ten miles back. I see you’re still carrying her’.
So there were all these monastic rules, regulations and even vows. Perhaps the older monk had broken one of them but in the name of compassion rather than lust. The young woman couldn’t cross the river without help. But the younger monk couldn’t lay the event down. Throughout the long mountainous walk he worried, and asked for clarification with a hint of rebuke: ‘Why did you break your vows?’ He carried that woman deep inside his head, unable to live in the moment, unable to enjoy the breeze and the countryside, constantly reflecting on broken vows, guilt and fears.
A poor man came to the Archbishop Esai and pleaded: ‘My family is so destitute that we have had nothing to eat for several days. My wife and children are about to die of starvation. Please have compassion ’.
At the time there was no clothing, food, or other possessions in the temple but Esai saw a thin piece of copper allocated to make a halo for a Buddha statue. He took it and broke it up, giving the man a piece, telling him to exchange it for food.
The disciples reproached Esai. ‘That is nothing other than the halo for the statue of the Buddha. Is it not a sin to use the Buddha is property for personal use? ’
Esai responded: ‘Yes, it is. Yet think of the Buddhas ’ will. The Buddha cut off his flesh and limbs and offered them to living human beings. Even if we gave the whole body of the Buddha to the people who are actually about to die of starvation, such an action would certainly be in accordance with the Buddha’s will. Even if we went to hell because of this sin, I have just saved living beings him starvation’.
These students had lost the plot. The sacred halo was needed to feed a destitute family that day, not for formal worship, Jesus allowed the hungry disciples to pick corn on the Sabbath and was severely criticised by Pharisees. They stared at the finger, not at the moon.
Jesus responded: ‘The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath’
The purpose of making statues was to serve those pilgrims following the pathway of the Buddha. ‘To save all sentient beings. The author Robert Pirsig, was right to suggest that following the Buddha, living in the Tao, is a daily discipline of infinite subtlety, not some crude motorcycle handbook to be followed diagram by diagram.
We can easily turn a vow from a joyous aspiration into an instrument for the severest self—punishment, a form of Buddhist Puritanism: we turn it against ourselves in an inverted arrogance. We can use it as proof of our worthlessness and weakness of we even think about breaking it. Rather than allowing our promise to be something that helps us and lifts us up, we use it to beat ourselves down. But when we are depressed, we need our vow more than at any other time. We can use it to help our healing, to make decisions easier, and sometimes even to keep us safe and alive. My life has been full of such oppressive feelings, taking me right away from living in the present time.
Chogyam Trungpa wrote:
The essence of meditation is nowness. Whatever one tries to practice is not aimed at achieving a higher state or at following some theory or idea, but simply, without any object or ambition, trying to see what is here and now. One has to become aware ofthe present moment . . .’ (Trungpa, 1969)
That is so very easy to talk about it but so very hard to practice, especially in ordinary, everyday life, full of the fires of desire. I’ve sat for so many years on a black zen cushion, my mind running rampantly all over the place although the body was still. In the beginning I had clear ideas about the point and purpose of meditation. I was going to be enlightened, to become illuminated, to be a better person, to listen more carefully . . . The list was very long.
My favourite cartoon contains some of that stupidity. Two huge hippos are standing in a swamp, stretching away into the distance, infinite and featureless. One comments to the other: ‘Do you know I keep thinking it’s Thursday’. Well I spend a great deal of time, wondering whether it’s a Thursday or how many shopping days there are to Christmas.
As the years rolled on — five, ten, twenty years of meditation — most of these ideas slipped away. They became increasingly irrelevant. I remained the same undisciplined slob but the many ambitions and the register of supposed achievements fell away. I wasn’t making any genuine progress but cared less. I dropped those ideas. They slipped off my back, usually without me noticing. I had fewer and fewer ideas about why I did this or that. I didn’t know any more what the point was. I just sat for most of the time, as the hours rolled interminably on. I felt settled.
Of course the everyday bustle, hustle, razzmatazz and greed is a far cry from Zen Master Unmon; ‘If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit; but don’t wabble, whatever you do’. Unmon takes us right back to the eternal Tao. Just to be our ordinary selves; living with simple and necessary rituals and activities; unconcerned with the complex social games played inside and outside. What does it matter what people believe and expect? Is it practicable to live in that way anymore? Can we avoid reflecting on what we see in others and guessing what they feel and think so we can calculate?
After opening Pandora’s Box, can we ever go back? YES. It doesn’t mean complacency and self—satisfaction. It means the difference between joyful service and covert spiritual greed. Of course there is an inherent and healthy drive deep within us, to create a better and more natural state, to live more simply, to be less plastic and conformist, free of the self- created internal noise and chatter. But even this drive can become an exploited trap — a spiritual materialism, a sophisticated variation on greed. We can be immensely greedy for possessions of the spiritual kind, to be liberated, awakened, to walk on water. We can build superior pyramids of ideologies. We can develop photographs of loaves of bread rather than bake the delicious and nourishing loaves themselves.
There’s a quotation from a sixteenth century poem by Edmund Spenser:
Sleep after Toyle,
Part after stormie Seas,
Ease after Warre,
Death after Life
Does Greatly Please
Spenser reminds us of the essential realities of human life and death. The mariner’s life that strips away the triviality of those trends that currently suffocate us. We need to return to some quiet and authentic traditions. They stress everyday living and relationships rather than anything wonderful and extraordinary. Our search for magical and superior techniques is not only unnecessary but also part of our sickness. We should be deeply suspicious of those forces, spiritual and therapeutic, that offer the possibility of major change, purchased through increased power and money. This is the damned trouble with inspirational spiritual teaching by great teachers such as Dogen. It sounds so ordinary — no great drum rolls or cymbals. You only realise you’ve had it when it’s too late. Blink or yawn and you’ve missed it. It all seems so banal at the time. You were expecting lightning to flash and thunder to roll and there’s only a slight cough or a shake of the hand. You were looking up in the air to find the stars and planets and it came silently on the back of a blowing leaf.
There’s an old Chinese story about a man who heard of a great teacher, many hundreds of miles away. He walked over seven mountain ranges; across ten broad rivers and countless streams; was robbed twice; hungered and thirsted many times; wore out half a dozen pairs of stout shoes. Eventually, after nearly a year, he arrived exhausted but content at the remote place where this great teacher was living and teaching. At the first meeting, he prostrated himself three times in the dust, as was the custom, and begged to be taught.
‘Please teach me, Oh Great One. I have come from a far’
The Great One responded brusquely — ‘Do good and avoid evil’, and then silence.
After a long wait the deeply disappointed student replied: ‘Is that it? Is that all? Is this teaching the reason why I sold everything, crossed all those rivers, nearly died in the mountains, walked a thousand miles, was robbed of all my possessions — to hear what every five—year—old child knows already?’
‘Ah’, said the Great One, ‘a five year old child may know it but an eighty-year—old man can’t practice it.’
You can sympathise with the exhausted student. He was expecting a drum roll at the least, some really clever comments of mystifying complexity; the communication of secret tantric empowerments. He’d made a massive journey at great personal cost and yet travelled no distance at all — his head still firmly in the clouds, clogs covered by unseen dog shit. He’d suffered, made very considerable sacrifices and expected some tangible reward.
The moving of the legs one in front of the other, and the ideas of liberation whirling about inside the head are easy. Spin—dryer mind. Everyday and banal practice is infinitely hard, as the Great One explained to the tired and angry student. If he had any sense the student would have stayed with his new—found teacher and studied hard to find a basis for solid living. However my best guess is that he left almost immediately and found someone with much better tricks and a more sophisticated spiel. That would have been his great loss.
All this leads one to ask, how to live with our internal demons or dragons? Most of us are haunted by an eternal succession of demons and dragons. Most of us spend some time on the run, attempting to escape the modern equivalent of those horrors. Sadly among the homeless are many emotional ‘runners’ — people trying vainly to escape ordinary living. Everyday Taoist practice is about learning to face the dragons and tigers — gently and slowly.
There is an old story about dragons and a temple. Paintings of dragons are a feature of great power in new temples. Many centuries ago an abbot from central China was visiting a colleague in the far south. The occasion was the opening of a new temple, and seeing the traditional dragon painting for the first time, the abbot was very impressed with its power and energy. He asked his colleague whether the man might be interested in working at his new temple. The colleague introduced him to the painter so that arrangements might be made directly.
The exchange was very agreeable and it was arranged for the artist to travel up in a month or two to execute the commission. The two men shook hands and as they parted, the abbot asked:
‘You have seen a real dragon. You do paint from real life?’
The artist was shocked. ‘I didn’t know there were any real dragons’. The abbot said firmly that dragons lived close to his temple and under no circumstances would he ever employ a painter who just used his imagination. Somewhat ashamed the immensely curious painter said:
‘What if I come up early, see the dragons and then do the painting?’ This was acceptable. So a few weeks later the painter made the long journey northwards and arrived towards nightfall. The following morning the abbot took him far out into the thick bush where the dragons lived. He left the unwilling artist on his own in a small clearing with water and bread. ‘I will be back in three days to collect you. Sit very still because these dragons are easily spooked’.
The artist was a city boy and soon became nervous. He sat right through the cold days and nights, but saw nothing and heard little.
On the fourth morning the abbot arrived. ‘Well. What did you see?’ The depressed painter said: ‘Nothing. I’m cold and frozen. I want to go home’.
The abbot asked: ‘Did you move at all?’ ‘Well of course I moved,’ said the artist angrily. ‘Ah’ said the abbot, ‘that’ll be it. These dragons are highly nervous. But you can’t give up now. Think of painting dragons from real life instead of just from your imagination’.
The guilty victim was persuaded to spend another three days and nights with some more bread and water. On the seventh morning the abbot returned. Before he could speak the furious painter screamed: ‘l’m so furious, cold and frustrated. I’ve spent six long days and nights in this desperately forsaken spot and seen absolutely nothing’.
His face went scarlet and his body shook violently. The abbot waited until silence was restored:
‘Now you’ve really seen the dragon, come back to the temple and paint it’. Even today, people say that the dragon in this remote temple is so powerful because it was painted from real life. How long do you think you would be able to sit still?
Uchiyama Roshi wrote:
When you climb a mountain, you climb moment by moment, one step at a time. It’s not that you climb a mountain only when you reach the summit. To advance one step at a time is what’s important. We live moment by moment, step by step. This is an activity of the whole universe. It is an activity that is good for nothing .There is nothing to pick up or throw away. There is nowhere to go. With this pure inner force within myself I live always here and now, manifesting the whole universe. (Uchiyama, 1990)
We’re not asked to jump over high buildings, wrestle with demons, turn pebbles into gold or even to lead a reasonably good life, whatever that might mean. We are asked to be simply human. What that really means for each of us is uncovered during our life-long pilgrimage. It is a journey through fog and mist, fear and anger; through stupidity and some very occasional flashes of wisdom.
It is very simple but not at all easy; difficult to remain undistracted, to avoid life’s almost irresistible seductions. This ordinary pilgrimage gradually reveals our true nature and helps our service to others to become a little more joyful. We gradually discover ways to fit in with the infinite world that surrounds us. We uncover some harmonies, a little realization of how very partial our understanding is and how infinite our ignorance. And when in danger we can always climb the nearest tree, and exercise the Tao of survival, of simple mindfulness.
Yes, and when I am walking with myself in a beautiful orchard, even if my thoughts dwell for a part of the time on distant events, I bring them back for another part of the walk, the orchard, the charm of this solitude, and to myself. Nothing at all special, just very ordinary — living directly in the unfolding moment, whether with kingfishers or dragons. But is there any greater challenge?