(This is a version of a post from 2009. I have taken out some of the specifics of the group members, some of whom have now passed away.)
I facilitate a special interest group that meets in Cittaviveka monastery. The qualification for entering the group is that one has to be at least sixty-five years old. I suggested that an elders’ group form because many of the monastery’s Dhamma functions occur in the evenings when it’s a risky and arduous journey for older people; and because our elders get very little attention compared (for example) with children. Yet these are often the people who have learned from life, and who have served and supported society (and the monastery) for years. It seemed an appropriate gesture to me to offer them an occasion in which as ‘Village Elders’ they could share their understanding, and be recognized. So the group’s been meeting for five or six years – though during that time certain members have died or become too frail to attend. Sometimes we talk on a pre-arranged Dhamma topic, at other times the session just begins with a check-in as to how people are and what’s happening in our lives; themes such as joy and duty, and almost inevitably ageing and dying, are explored, and we go on for an hour or two. There is a beauty to any occasion when people share the meaning of their lives, and these long-term Dhamma practitioners often sound notes that are deepened by the struggles around letting go, by loyalty and pragmatic compassion, and by that often unsung virtue – resilience.
Rocana, who travels some twenty-five miles to get to the meeting, also offers her services as a Buddhist chaplain. What this means in practice is that hospitals in her area phone her up to visit the dying, or the bereaved, or assist with funeral rites. Most often it’s just a matter of offering presence – such as by holding someone’s hand in their last hours. In our last session, she spoke of a recent occasion in which a local hospital had contacted her: a mother had died in childbirth, and the just-born baby was also dying – could she come? So of course she went to the hospital and on coming to the cot, gently held the child so that it would at least know some human contact before it passed away. The father was there too, obviously very distraught: ‘Can I touch my baby?’ he asked. ‘Of course,’ said Rocana – and as the father moved his hand towards the little one, the baby moved its finger to make contact with him. Somehow it had sensed the parent and reached out. That movement towards contact was the only thing that baby did in its life.
The primary nature of such a gesture heightens the meaning of ‘getting in touch’: it’s obviously a lot more than making a few social acquaintances.
It’s been shown in some of those ghastly experiments that scientists perform on living creatures that if you take two cells from the same heart, and send a small electric current into one, the other will also respond even when it’s several feet away. Living tissue knows contact and retains its sense of connection even when it is separated from the body. Widen the focus and we can note the flock patterns of birds, and the herd instincts of other animals. They don’t stay in touch through mobile phones and e-mails. Instead there’s primary empathy: a knowing of connection that creatures experience at various levels of consciousness. For humans it’s the sense (not the notion) of ‘we.’ That is, it’s not the idea of ‘we’ – which is often assumed for ‘political’ reasons – but a felt sense that occurs when we see another human – which is different from seeing a tree. It’s that basic a sense that even in the case of the Buddha, an all-transcendent one, it remained the fundamental focus of his life after Enlightenment. The story is that in that sustained state of bliss and clarity after his Awakening, he was moved by empathy (and the imprecation of a high divinity) to present the Dhamma to his fellow humans. Before his Awakening he had moved out of home and family, and even out of spiritual companionship, to deepen his practice in undisturbed solitude; but one effect of this practice was that his relational sense purified from one of attachment to one of unfettered empathy. And realising the power of the relational sense, he subsequently strongly encouraged spiritual companionship and a harmonious Sangha. Solitude and companionship; he encouraged and lived them both.
So it’s not a simple matter of ‘we’re all one’ or of ‘just be a guide to yourself.’ (Both of these are self-views when you come to think of it.) There is connection. But just as connective tissues bind the body into a single unit, and just as the faculty of hearing connects my mind to what others say, this ‘we’ connection can come apart or be impaired or blocked. Nor do the instincts around connection represent unfailingly healthy states of mind: there are urges to own others as part of my ‘we,’ as well as demonization of the not-we. So although the instinctive reflex of contact is there, it’s necessary to purify it.
In practice then we have to contemplate and inquire into how contact and connection get established, and what gets made of them. In terms of our personalities – the series of programs and habits through which an interface forms between the mind and the social world – everyone is different. But what we all have in common is the fact of having, and having to operate through, a personality. That’s the structure at the interface between mind and the world. If someone says they aren’t relating to you through their personality, that’s about as valid as saying they don’t taste things with their tongue. It might be a personality that’s void of manipulative or abusive programs, but to deny that there is one can be a prologue to absolutising a personal perspective, or making a selection of ‘facts’ (i.e the ones that conform to one’s views) into the Truth. Dangerous; there is no such experience as ‘objective reality.’ It all depends on contact; and that’s bound up with what one gives attention to, and that’s bound up with the motivation behind one’s attention. Ask a burglar and an architect for the facts about a house and you’ll get different presentations. The classic illustration is the parable of the group of blind men who each touch a different part of an elephant: one assumes the elephant is a column (because he feels a leg); another that it’s a serpent (grabs the trunk); another, a fashioned ornament (a tusk); another, a fan (ear). Are any of them lying? Are any of them getting the Truth of the elephant?
To get in touch with how things are being experienced is a valid approach. We can then contemplate our attitudes, knee-jerk responses, and life agendas, reflect on what we’ve noticed, how we’re affected and purify our response. This is where meditation gets integrated into insight into our mental kamma – and a subsequent release.
I’ve just finished leading a meditation retreat in Provence, France. It was much the same as many other retreats that I’ve been part of: aspirations, struggles, crises, breakthroughs. What strikes me about these retreat situations is the sense of solidarity that almost always prevails, even though, and maybe because, there is very little personality contact. Often the degree to which that has occurred has been a source of irritation – she talks in the kitchen, he insists on leaving his shoes in the wrong place etc … Somehow, just holding a form where we sit and operate in silence as a group for ten days generates a relatedness in which personal resonances can settle. Furthermore, that relational sense, as it strengthens, deepens the meditation: we grope around our mental kamma looking for peace, and as we do so, the mind tunes into a surprising sense of empathy. Often it’s with others, but most necessarily it’s with aspects of ourselves that we’ve lost touch with or banned.
A situation on the retreat which assists the process is the ‘Interview’ – a meeting during which the retreatant, or often a handful of retreatants, sits with the teacher and expresses what’s coming up. So for a period of an hour or more, people about whom all one knows is their names speak of areas of their experience. These areas often contain a lot of unknowns to themselves. Disturbing energies, unaccountable emotions, and memories from situations that are now apparently beyond resolution mingle with current dilemmas that present no clear way forward. In this last retreat, the odds were stacked up against any sense of connection: my French is basic and patchy, so most dialogue goes through a translator. My lifestyle and experience is different from that of the retreatants. I don’t have kids, parents, or a partner who’s on a different wavelength. Nor in the space of the small time that there is for dialogue is it possible to arrive at any answers. Actually this brevity is an asset: we get to a point that is accessible, now. And through naming an experience to a trusted party, the relational sense gets activated. Through staying with that, what can eventually crystallize is the relationship that the person has with his/her experience. Our relational sense will always search for the optimum resolution in any situation; and the mistake that most minds have made (often unconsciously) is that the optimum way to deal with a difficulty is to disconnect from it. That is, we blame someone (or ourselves), or shrug it off, or overlay a pain with some pleasure, or leave the feeling and go up into the world of ideas where everything is clear. From that place of black-and-white and facts, we find a resolution of sorts, but it’s often in the form of ‘he’s one of those’, ‘I’m this way’, or ‘that’s all past, there’s nothing I can do about it.’ Such resignation isn’t a release: it still carries the flavour of anger, grief or despair. However if these tendencies can be exposed and held in awareness, if the pain of that can be touched, then there’s an opening to a fuller, healthier relationship with it, one which will be the source of any resolution. We may find an ability to learn and be strengthened by insecurity and loss; we may realize the need to cultivate a broader sense of compassion – and so, through getting in touch, our lives can move on.
In the Interview there’s the underlying sense that a resolution can be, should be arrived at – but most of the time all I can offer are a few suggestions of how to hold the irresolution/problem/mystery. I sit in an openness to maintain the sense of connection, and keep one eye alert to my own attitudes and how the connection can get lost through trying to fix things, or through telling people how they should be. The relationship to the state – which itself may change from anger to fatigue to sadness to tenderness and calm – is about all I can help to facilitate. Sometimes this is through suggestions as to how to support awareness of the state, or by encouraging an investigation, or by asking for clarification. Quite often ideas or intuitions arise, but I am on guard against presenting pat solutions which take the authority away from the retreatant’s own relational sense. By staying in touch with that sense, the Interview encourages me to not feed my own abstract notions. As such it is a gift.
Abstract notions are however another aspect of what I’m involved with: management, plans, and ‘Sangha business.’ It’s quite a practice because it entails leaving the contact with the direct experience of people and situations and entering discussions as to what is for the welfare of the Sangha/ the monastery, or for the nuns/monks/lay people. The more people or resources it entails, the bigger the elephant that an increasing number of half-blind people grope towards a clear definition over, generally with laudable intentions. What’s often also the case is that the aims and intentions stir up differences of opinion – because they’re never fully translatable into specific actions. For example: is giving ordination to this (naturally not fully-realized) candidate a worthy gesture of faith and compassion, or is it taking on someone who will be a headache and possibly bring the Sangha into disrepute? Should we judiciously supervise access to the Internet, or is that just control-freakery? Which is for the welfare of the Dhamma, the tradition? Etc. etc. Though this kind of debate is often around matters that I am not directly in touch with, it has made me more aware of my own limited eyesight, and of being more cautious of the leap to form a clear picture. Up in my head it can all seem bright and simple – and why are other people so awkward, uninformed, and biased? Then I notice how that judgement feels. Furthermore, witnessing how other people are when they grab hold of their bit of the elephant – and get impassioned, judgemental, insensitive and impervious to the perspectives of others – has led me to a small rule of thumb: the harder the facts, the harder is the heart that holds them as Truth. And in that hardness the flexible hand of aware contact contracts into a fist.
Using the abstract is essential for the politics of life. By ‘politics’ I don’t mean to malign the function. Politics is the process whereby people, events and possibilities get grouped around an abstract unity – such as a ‘nation’ or a ‘monastery,’ and that unity becomes the decisive factor for action. We do this on behalf of our country, or our tribe. (And that excludes others.) I used to think politics occurred whenever three people got together – then that it was when two people got together with that organizational intention. Now I’m aware that it only takes one person to try to figure out what to do and how things should be in order to get polarizations occurring between their ideals, emotions, and loyalties. Hence ‘what is the best for me?’ becomes a political debate – it depends on who you mean by ‘me.’ Abbot, bhikkhu, citizen of planet earth or what?
With any of these I’m left trying to get a feel for how they are held in my mind. Experienced directly, the me, the monastery, or the Sangha is a changeable diversity of memories, aspirations, problems, and needs …But when I hold onto the concept as the reality, I do so with an expectation it be a certain way – which brings up grasping and disappointment. So I try to look into what these concepts mean for me right now. And I wait on rushing into clarity about what I’m going to do for them or about them. First of all, is their current state of affairs something that exasperates me, makes me anxious, or harsh? That first affect is going to colour what ‘facts’ I find and how I act on them. And as I sustain that focus, I start to feel for my fellow part-sighted men and women as we fumble with a range of elephants that come stampeding through – how is it for him or her, how is it for me or for you, friend? How is it when we grab hold of our bit of the elephant and lose touch with who is doing the holding? How is it when we go up into our heads? How is it to be grasped by an idea? Isn’t something precious lost?
Politics is part of life. It must therefore be covered by Dhamma-practice. And in this case an arrival at a truth which will always be relative to each situation most readily occurs through dialogue. By and large people this is a process of feeling out how our elephants affect us, even as we handle them. It means throwing ideas into the air and maintaining faith in each other. This may seem limp, but it’s something the Buddha strongly recommended in order to maintain a healthy Sangha life. For me, one result is that after decades of living in communities of wide-ranging views I’ve got a bit freer from the tendency to form more of my own. Instead I acknowledge that my view has to sit within something larger and more shareable than that. So I trust and value doing the work of staying in touch. Moreover as the elephant of Truth continues to morph through changeable forms, I know why the Village Elders exchange slow and knowing smiles.