Original Openness

So you’re in the rainforest of N.W.Congo looking for wildlife – and then one of them finds you. What do you do? What do you do when a large male gorilla comes towards you, in fact draws very close? Well, in this case, a friend told me, you just stay open. ‘I was out of my comfort zone,’ he admitted, ‘but I just had to be there and trust.’ The gorilla slowly moved in, placed a kiss on my friend’s neck, and then moved on his way. Welcome to the open world.

Admittedly such an attitude can often seem inadvisable with our fellow humans. But there are times when there’s really nothing else you can do. In my case the trust in openness was most dramatically demanded of me when a group of bandits, brandishing axes and cudgels jumped me near Rajgir in Bihar, India. What do you do when four armed men have grabbed you, and in the heat of the moment, one is grimacing and waving an axe at your head? Fortunately there’s not much else to do but to stay open. For me, in that moment, the reflection arose that everyone has to die, and maybe this was my time. The only choice that was available was to go without fear. So instinctively, I bowed my head to the man with the axe and drew the blade of my hand across the top of my skull to indicate where to hit. ‘This won’t take long,’ I thought. The bandit paused and his energy and body language softened. I stepped forward, again offering my head. The heat in the situation dropped like a stone. The man with the axe looked confused and lowered his weapon, and the other men released my arms. I slipped my bag from my shoulders, placed it before them and slowly walked away. No kiss on the neck, but enough for me to trust the power of openness. *

Opennness is an attractive quality. To feel open-minded and open-hearted is beautiful; to be free from the burden of anxiety, mistrust and planning the future; to be simply present. In that willingness to be here with no preoccupations, defence or alternatives, we can rest in a world which suddenly, surprisingly, feels like home. With openness there’s the ability to learn – even from mistakes – and a basis for healthy motivation. It’s a quality that I frequently assess in myself: in a position which entails management and tradition, how do I stay open to the erratic, the uncertain and the experimental? How do I stay fresh?

It’s a wide-ranging enquiry: for most people the process of growing up is generally one in which, as stability and convenience increase, wonder and appreciation fade. The domesticated management of our lives can render us dull and clumsy; we don’t see or respond in a fresh way, and the magical domain of childhood flattens into a world of named knowns and functions. The individual gets bound to performance – even in sport or relationship – society is limited to a network of obligations and ownership, and religion becomes associated with claiming ultimate superiority. In such a world, motivation gets turned towards maintaining and enhancing the present status quo – although the consequent effort to maintain all the social connections, legal structures and appurtenances causes us nearly unmanageable degrees of stress. None of this is new: from ancient times the energetic and spiritual costs of a managed life in the society has always been one of the reasons for Going Forth. So can we find a way to live on the planet that doesn’t involve burying the spirit? How do we find stability in a world of uncertainty and change without going rigid?

Since change is a fundamental ‘law,’ the question around accommodating it calls for an examination of what openness entails. In the Buddha’s dispensation, openness is the faculty of faith (saddhā). This openness is an innate faculty, part of the original potential with which we’re born. A point to emphasize is that it doesn’t stand alone but is part of a set of five innate faculties (indriya) which we are encouraged to develop and which are said to ‘merge in the Deathless.’ So this is major stuff. The other four faculties are application-energy (viriya), mindfulness (sati), collectedness (samādhi) and discernment (pañña). However, faith opens the set. It’s not a belief – belief-systems tend to close the mind by locking it into an imposed structure.  No, faith opens the mind, and is a potential we all have; it’s not an ideology but an original and authentic faculty. Its bottom line is the everyday faith that we have that there’s something worth living for, that the future holds a potential for development, and that in the tangled skein of what’s arising in the present, there is a meaningful thread.

Faith, as openness, is essential. It’s worth remembering that the first words the Buddha spoke to his five first disciples were: ‘Wide open are the gates to the Deathless, let those who can listen, bring forth their faith.’ In this statement, he wasn’t asking for belief, but pointing to our potential for faith – because it’s with this as a foundation that the mind is most capable of accessing the other four original faculties. And to emphasize again: although it’s the opener, faith isn’t enough – the crucial detail is that we need to place it on people or circumstances that can support it. Therefore throughout his life, the Buddha kept encouraging people to consider, assess and carefully discern what to place that faith in.

Openness then is a careful practice rather than an ideology that insists on openness to all people at all times. Misplaced faith, an openness or trust that isn’t backed up by a mindful assessment of what your putting your faith in, is subject to being abused. What is always skilful, however, is to be open to yourself about what’s happening to you in the here and now, and checking it out – in your body and heart. Maybe there was a threat, but that’s passed. Maybe you’ve reached the edge of our capacity to be open and accepting of another: then something has to be said to let them know that. Thus you replace a pathology with wise navigation. This wise openness naturally supports application-energy; when there’s that inner balance we’re naturally curious and empathic and we move into our environment in a positive way.

Environment alone provides adequate causes for what I’ve referred to as ‘burying the spirit.’ In a world in which moral integrity is not a guarantee, confused self-interest often overcomes interpersonal respect. Abuse – verbal, sexual and physical – gives numb hearts a fleeting surge of power, release and even pleasure. And as every instance of abuse diminishes self-confidence, for one who has been abused there is a fading of trust that there’s anything good or true or beautiful, and consequently a loss of motivation. Instead, the heart gets cynical and closes down. Moreover, a closed heart feels numb – it loses its natural empathy and joyfulness, and therefore seeks surges of power and pleasure to feel alive. Ironically it is the emphasis on the pleasure which is purely self-gratifying that is a basis for abuse. So as the heart closes, the cycle of abuse (of oneself or others) keeps going. The remedy, the breaking of the cycle, can’t be affected by punishment.  Instead it takes a return to empathy – within one’s own mind, or provided by another – to offer acceptance and safety to the numb or embittered heart. It’s only through empathy that the pattern unravels. In everyday human terms, what has to be done is to open up the hurt, feel into it and talk it out.

Another cause for spiritual burial is acclimatization to comforts: we insure them, defend them, and are unwilling to step out of the haven of the known. The traditional remedy is that every now and then, you undertake a pilgrimage (which is how I came to be in Bihar in the first place). It’s a chance to shed some wrappings. And that’s a constant requirement in order to counterbalance domestic life. Because whether it’s caused by phobias or addictions, closure of the heart reduces our confidence, and thereby increases the anxiety that the closure is supposed to protect us from. Thus begins another downward spiral. A friend of mine, embarking on a trip to explore wildlife in Mauritius, found that his companion couldn’t go because there was no alcohol on the ship. Another person couldn’t come to the monastery because she couldn’t handle the idea of sitting on a toilet seat that other people had sat on. The phobia barred her from companionship in Dhamma and an ideal environment in which to work on addictions and phobias. We’re up against a very agile demon.

In the world in general, the same spirals occur. People also close down with the presence (or the idea) of strangers, the immigrants, the radicals, the new wave. Those who are unsettled unsettle us, and one of our reactions to that is to lose empathy and increase security. But in keeping things safe, systems of security generate loss of liberty and opportunity – hence there’s protest, and hence the tear-gas. Most repressive systems use ‘law and order’ to block change, and however responsible government sounds, any response that isn’t at least open to change tends towards repression. Let’s not be pessimistic, but if you’ve reviewed any social or religious revolution, (or just read Euripides’ Bacchae) you’ll get a grim picture of the forces involved and how volcanic that change can become when it eventually happens.

Milder but chronic degrees of spiritual burial get triggered by fear of the uncertain, which triggers the security behaviours which the Buddha summed up as ‘attachment to systems and customs’(silavattaparamāsa). These peak as obsessive-compulsive disorders, but whether it’s a fundamentalist view, a need to have everything planned in advance, or knocking three times on the table before you can eat breakfast, attachment to systems and customs is about being able to establish personal control in a world that is experienced as tipping into chaos. Watch out for the signs: whenever there’s that wobble of feeling that you have to control life, and that there are others that you have to struggle against, and a mass of things you have to sort out – it’s time to pause and take a long outbreath. Pause, come into the body, sense its texture and energies and take a long slow outbreath; then pause some more. Even lengthen that pause; it helps the mental energy to shift and find ground in the body. With the support of a firm centre (most usefully aligned to the spinal axis) opening can begin. Then if you let your awareness feel its way into the felt sense of your body in an open and unpressurized way, the areas of tension can melt and areas that are stale brighten up. You get to feel whole, present, not driven forward and not hanging back. The neural connections for irritation and greed aren’t getting engaged and what remains is empathy and balance. If you stay with that, thoroughly, samādhi arises. This is not a matter of ‘getting concentrated,’ it’s a matter of giving your original openness a valid support by bringing it into your body and fully living it. Then you get perspective: the first ‘other’ that you have to deal with is living under your ribs; the mess that you have to sort out is the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Uncertainty is more chronically embedded as the personality’s relationship to the world. Because personality is a social interface and not a central support, it can only manage what it has been programmed by society to handle. Hence chaotic urges, irrational moods, and psychological imbalances are beyond its scope. So all that gets closed; and it needs a blur of pressures and distractions to hold down the lid. Like the princess with the pea under her mattress, you wonder why you’re not able to rest, but the source of all that activity is the need to be something (bhava) and the need to annihilate or purge oneself of something (vibhava) – although what the ‘something’ is is of a mirage-like nature. Within the shifting shapes of the mirage of need for approval/success/ performance credentials or the need to get away from or eradicate some basic stain (Lady Macbeth lives on!) is the unsettled state of being in a large something that sees and can accept or reject us. Hence the anxiety of what might happen if ʼ(people really knew/ when I get old/if I can’t do…/ if I’m not…enough). So our lives get busy with wrapping our sensed vacuity in agreeable and useful skins. And that blocks openness, with its ease of being.

Someone was talking to me recently about moments – particularly on waking up in the morning – of not knowing who or where he was, and of the panic that sets in. That’s the anxiety that comes with depending on personality. The point to work on, I suggested, is not to hastily establish who or where you are, but to find peace in the unknowing. That is, if you stabilize the response to the unknown by coming into your bodily presence, maybe setting up a small calming movement and sensing the space around you receiving you, then this opening out of the identified world is enjoyable and insightful. Although it’s a raw edge to negotiate, when we can establish an embodied openness, it’s a relief to have the personal world replaced with clear open space. When the movie of who we are turns off, there’s just the open mystery – and that’s wonderful. It’s well worth practising with, because that’s the threshold to cross at death.

So: safety and management versus freshness and immediacy, Apollonian versus Dionysian. The dilemma is classic and embedded in the human psyche as the see-saw between super-ego perspectives of what is useful, proper and acceptable, and the heart’s need for the free, the brave and the immediate. The first swings over into cold-hearted control, the latter into recklessness. Balance is crucial, and it takes the development of all five spiritual faculties.

But that’s how you wake up; life is most alive when you can be present at the edge of the unknown. And if there’s one way in which the property of ‘the Deathless’ can be experienced right now, it’s in the ability to living free of the heart-contraction of fear, depression and holding on that comes with the loss of the known. Death, separation, uncertainty – they’re all part of life. The Buddha’s teaching is that we have the original potential to handle, and in fact blossom, in the face of these. We don’t have to feel threatened, anxious, needy or inadequate. With wise openness, the main causes and conditions for human misery cease.

The gates to the good life are open. It’s only because we place so much emphasis on trying to know what can’t be known – such as the future, and how other people are – that we close them. But when all is uncertain, all is possible. In such a light, wise openness is the most obvious faculty to develop, because the unknown is right here within and around us.

The fuller account of this is in ‘Rude Awakenings’ available via Wisdom Publications or via www.forestsanghapublications.org

Talks, Essays, Reflections