“I am the eyes of the Universe observing itself” Shelley

I would like to think that mindfulness meditation offers a new way of being alone. That would be the goal inspiring the Mindsprings course this summer.

"Loneliness is no particular colour - a mountain of black pines on an autumn evening." Bashō.

As I proposed in the earlier blog, loneliness is co-created by the society we live in. There are other cultures, for example, where solitude (loneliness’ twin) is considered highly-prized. The early Buddhists saw sitting alone under a forest tree or in a mountain cave as being a perfect place to be. Similarly, the 17th century Zen poet, Bashō made much of the quality of sabi which he saw as the underlying quality of all human existence; a bitter-sweet solitude which was colourless and profound. Thoreau, living alone out on Walden pond in the America of the 19th century, also prized his experience, turning our idea of loneliness up on its head: “I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls.”

This is a series of essays on a subject that i’m interested in exploring in 2014: loneliness. Last year at Mindsprings we concentrated a lot of anxiety and how mindfulness can work to lessen the pain around this ubiquitous experience. This year I would like to concentrate on loneliness.

Ram Dass, faced by a rather smug bunch of his students, once said: "You think you're enlightened? Go and spend a week with your parents.."

Ajahn Sumedho, perhaps the most pre-eminent Western teacher in the Thai Forest Sangha tradition, abbot of many monasteries, and often seen as a the successor of Luang Por Chah, left the Thai forest to travel back to the USA to look after his ailing father for the holidays. When he opened the door to Sumedho, 6'7" in his resplendent ochre robes, the father snarled: "I don't care who you think you are elsewhere. Here, in this house, I am boss. Understood?"

Christmas is the most powerful time to observe that particular human magnetism that we call the Family Gathering and the effect it has on our mind.

Reggie Ray said a striking thing in one of his Dharma Ocean talks (highly recommended btw) about the Tibetan Buddhist practice of totally opening up to what is happening to you:

The heart overcomes suffering by becoming bigger than it. Not by getting rid of it.

This is the final thought that I garnered from Ajahn Sucitto’s talk in Lisbon at the end of last month.

And I’ve had to have a few weeks to really understand the significance of this - for me.

Teaching mindfulness over many years I have circled around the idea a lot. Rather than ‘getting rid’ of emotions or painful memories, I have trained myself (and encouraged others) to open up to them and sit with them; to create a safe space in our meditation practice where it’s ok to feel strong emotion and also clock the fact that strong emotion passes.

When we try and hurry experience along out of our life too quickly then it has a habit of returning and returning.

And yet, I have also been conscious of very subtle (and not so subtle) levels of ‘getting rid of’ going on in my psyche.

There is a Nibbana element.

This was a completely new idea to me. The Buddhist worldview is that there is a World made up of the four elements - water, fire, earth, and air. And that our bodies are a temporary constellation of these consituent elements that return to these base materials after death. A Western scientific notion might be that we are all atoms, temporarally constellated, only to dissolve back into carbon, oxygen etc. once we die.

The idea that Nibbana is part of the mix was not an idea I had heard up till that point.

The fifth thought that I recall from Ajahn Sucitto’s talk touches on how time creates suffering:

Nibbana is the abolition of the future.

This arose in reply to that meditator who had been struggling with the sense of ‘so what?’ in his practice. Sucitto was talking about the very subtle levels of stress that occur as soon as we ‘intend’ something. As soon as the mind constructs a future with our intentions unfolding out into it then we are away from the present source of happiness. We believe ardently (but foolishly from a Buddhist point of view) that thinking and planning and policing our future will makes us happy. Infact, counter-intuitively, it’s the thing that is making us unhappy.

I am keenly aware of this.

One of the challenges of meditation is the dance we do with “the Path”.

On the one hand we are told to rest, uncontrived in the present moment. And then we are simultaneously exhorted to aim towards Nibbana and practice assiduously to that aspiration.

Stay still. Get somewhere.

Accept how you are. Become something better.


Today I spent the whole day talking to teenagers about Buddhism and meditation. I had been kindly invited months ago by a mindfulness student of mine, Lindsey, who works at Steyning Grammar School in West Sussex. Her unflagging enthusiasm for her job and her students had really impressed me and I wanted to see what the school was doing - so I came in for the day talking to four or five groups of 16-18 year olds who were studying RE, ethics and/or philosophy for GCSE, A Leve and international baccalaureate.

It always does my heart good to hang out with teenagers. Even on buses I love to hear their bubbling enthusiasm for things and I am reminded of my own groping for awkward meaning at that age. To be honest, the smart, well-informed young men and women I met at Steyning were light-years ahead of the rather browbeaten underinspired boys at my Catholic Boys School, but I was happy to see such progress in the much-maligned education system. That stage of life is always so pregnant with potential. And the students I met were thoughtful and inquiring and keen to know what Buddhism offered. Which was handy, since that was my patch of knowledge.