Compassion for Pirates

Sometimes in this life there are people who challenge us.  It is often difficult to maintain an awareness of our reactions when we are being challenged by another, or when someone upsets us, frustrates or annoys us.  These people can often be our greatest teachers, however, helping us to learn the ways of compassion.

Compassion is not the same as blind acceptance and becoming a sort of door mat for this kind of behaviour. It is not about loving people unconditionally.  There is a social contract involved, based on circumstance, culture and society.  Compassion is trying to understand the other person before falling into a reactionary role.  It is trying to see the bigger picture, in order to act appropriately.  We can stand up for ourselves, for what we believe is right. We can also try to understand those who challenge our views, who have hurt us in the past, who continue to frustrate or upset us in the present moment.

It might not even be that person’s fault that they upset you so.  Vietnemese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book, Interbeing on how if he had grown up on the coast of Siam, there is every possibility that he could have become a pirate like so many other men that plague the waters and make it dangerous for anyone living there.  Often it is due to matters out of anyone’s control – place of birth and circumstances of living that no one can have any sort of say in.

That’s not to say that people can’t change.  It is up to each and every individual to find the path that leads to the least amount of suffering in the world.  We all know that suffering exists – what we should aim to do is to alleviate that suffering where we can, both within our own hearts and in the hearts of others.

We cannot change other people – they have to want to change themselves. We can only lead by example, with our hearts open to the joys of life, not shutting down despite how much we have been hurt. Many may say that this way of living simply invites more hurt into your lives, but I would disagree.  By closing yourself down to love, you are doing yourself a disservice, and not having the right amount of compassion for your own self.  We do not allow people to hurt us – if they do, we walk away to a safe distance, try to understand the reasons why they have behaved in the way that they did, and perhaps try to alleviate the suffering on both sides through compassionate dialogue. Where this isn’t appropriate or where it just isn’t possible, perhaps because we have been hurt too much, we can simply bow and walk away, wishing peace for them and for our own hearts to still open to the possibility of love from a myriad of sources that exist in the world.

There are people in my life that I simply do not get on with.  It is sometimes a personality clash, or they have done/said something that I do not agree with – the circumstances vary.  When we have been mistreated, it is often hard to have compassion for the person who has done you wrong.  Your mind can get so caught up in what this person has done to you that everything they do annoys you.  The way they walk, the way they talk – the way they may apparently blunder through life.  When I find myself faced with such thoughts, it offers me the opportunity to see my own reactions and emotions, to understand how my mind works a little better. This is a true gift.

Yes, this person behaved inappropriately towards me in the past. But why should I let them continue to hurt me, to annoy me, to frustrate me? This is all within my control to end whenever I feel like it.  I don’t have to attach to the past hurt – I can let that go and get on with my life.  When I find myself glaring, or sneering on the inside, when I am disturbed on any level by this other person, I stop, pay attention what is happening in my mind, and smile. I can see the reactions for what they are. They are not actions – they are reactions.  I am acting mindlessly upon something that has already happened, and I am acting again and again in a repetitive state that does not help to alleviate anyone’s suffering. We have the opportunity to really act only once in any given situation, at the moment it happens. After that, we are acting upon the memory of the situation.

I am grateful for the opportunities I am given to see how my mind works, how my emotions can override the reality of a situation.  We are emotional beings, passionate creatures.  We can live a passionate life without being ruled by mindless behaviour. When it becomes too much, we can walk away, taking time to breathe, to try to understand ourselves and the other, to see the reality of the situation. Where there is no way forward, where is there is only hurt or danger we walk away with open hearts. Where there is a chance for reconciliation and healing then we take that with gratitude.

Living with compassion is not an easy thing – it takes dedication to truly want to understand your self, and others around you.  Yet when you do, the world opens up like a beautiful lotus flower, the many petals of existence showering you with beauty.

Fear of Ageing

Having recently just turned 39, my thoughts lately have been turning to our society’s views on ageing.  Ageing is something that we must fight, if you listen to all the women’s toiletries marketing ploys.  Combat ageing, they say, with their Miracle Defense Cure (incidentally, I did a search on how many products contain the word “defense” in their name for creams, lotions and potions, and it was staggering…) and you will be young forever, for young is beautiful.

Now, I don’t know about you, and can’t speak for the masses, but I don’t want to look like a twelve year old girl.  Most models in fashion magazines are under 16 years of age.  They wouldn’t even be able to afford the clothes that they are modelling for the older, more affluent women who buy said magazines.  Billboards and television advertisements show us young women all the time, for everything from cosmetics to kitchens.  We have ingrained in our minds that young is beautiful, and have it reinforced each and every day.

I have recently heard that young women are also shaving themselves completely, removing all pubic hair. Why, I have absolutely no idea, but this only reiterates our new obsession with youth – they may state for hygienic or fashion purposes, but the fact of the matter remains – they still will end up looking like pre-pubescent girls.  Not terribly sexy, in my opinion.

Why do we have such a fear of ageing? Why do we consider youth to be so beautiful, at least for the human race?  Many humans see beauty in older things, such as a 500 year old tree, or a 1,000 year old cathedral. Here in the UK, the ideal home in the country would be something reminiscent of a house built in the 1600 – 1800’s.  Old, at least for some things, is aesthetically pleasing. Why not for the human body as well?

We do not venerate the old in our society; it is not an achievement anymore to reach old age, what with the wonders of modern medicine.  Old people are a burden to those still earning money, getting in the way until they are put in homes.  We do not look after our elderly anymore, but pay others to do it for us.  Out of sight, out of mind.  We fear ageing, we do not want to have to deal with it.  It’s a sickening, maddening cycle, for we will all age. It’s the one thing that we cannot avoid at any cost.  The diet industry might lose us as customers once we’ve lost the desired weight, but there’s no stopping the ageing process, and manufacturers know this, licking their lips in anticipation of our progress down the linear track of time.

Ageing for a man is still, as far as I can observe, less of a fear than for a woman.  Men with grey hair are sexy. Women with grey hair are not.  Distinguished, people say of men with grey hair.  What of women?  Personally, I cannot wait to have grey hair, or white even – I love the colour.  But society disagrees with me, and sells us harmful chemicals to put on our heads to cover up those grey hairs.  As women live longer than men, on the whole, why do they fear ageing even more?

The loss of youth equals the loss of beauty.  We need to change our perception of that in order to alleviate our fears.  It’s a silly fear in the first place, as nothing we can do will prevent it from happening.  And yet, women all over the world go under the knife to have surgery, or injections, or pay exorbitant amounts of money on products that don’t really do anything.  Why, for the love of the goddess, why?

Fear is such a grand motivator in all things.  We must embrace our fear, as we must embrace our ageing.  What is it that we fear about ageing? For some, it might be the fear of being cast aside, of not being a “productive” member of society – what will I do in retirement? For others, it means coming to terms with their own mortality.  I know that after meditating on this for some time, my personal fear is the loss of beauty – until I realised that beauty does not come with an age limit.  I look around me and find inspiration in all things beautiful and realise just how limiting it is to think of beauty in terms of age.  Step outside the human mindset and watch your world expand.

Watching my face and body change is now no longer depressing – it’s interesting, and a little exciting.  My curves are softer, my breasts larger.  I have cellulite on my thighs.  I have wrinkles on my cleavage.  Little lines around my eyes.  My hands show the hours of work that I have put them to.  My days of sunshine and laughter shown in freckles and wrinkles.  Tattoos mark life transitions, and will look amazing no matter what age I get, as they will change with my body.  Scars show life’s trials and tribulations. All these are a part of my self, and denying these, hating these, is hating myself. What a bloody waste of time.

If society tells me that I should fear ageing, I shall stick up two fingers to it and tell them to bugger off.  I’m more afraid of war, nuclear waste, fracking and the poor badgers who are being culled than I am of ageing.  I no longer fear ageing full stop. To hell with their distractions – there are so much more important things to be doing that standing in front of a mirror looking at a wrinkle or two.

I adored my youth, and have many, many fond memories of it.  Growing up in a beautiful part of the world, loving a beautiful boy for the first time, learning to play music and sing, to roam and find personal freedom.  I am also adoring my “middle years”, whatever that may mean.  Each and every day is precious, and so I will be thankful for them.  There is no battle to be fought, there is no war to be won on ageing.  Time is time, and cares not whether you try out your best wrinkle defense cream.  Be like time, and care not about that which you cannot alter. Don’t go with the flow, but be the flow itself.  Live, love and be happy, free of the fear that society tells you that you should have.  Stand tall and proud, grey hairs and saggy breasted, and know that you are goddess, that you are beautiful, if you only allow yourself to be.

Grab that strawberry!

The wild strawberries are now out in my garden, and I am reminded of this Zen story.

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

What if I told you that we choose to let our emotions, our grief, the struggles of living day to day affect us?  Who on earth would willingly choose to allow these to happen? Those who are afraid to face them, to engage with them. They are often the people who believe that mediation is all about pushing your feelings away for a space in time in which to breathe. While this can be a short-term coping mechanism, in the long term it achieves nothing. We must choose to face the abyss, and have the abyss stare back at us (Nietzche).

So many people believe Zen or Buddhist meditation is all about emptying the mind, to achieve nothingness. To wilfully push out everything and focus on nothing. However, in doing so, as soon as when we stop focusing on nothing, everything else comes rushing back in.

If, instead, we focus on issues that we are facing when we meditate we can resolve them – perhaps not all in one sitting, but over time, getting to know our fears in order to work with them.  We’ll never know how to break free of our demons until we can name them.

Simply sitting, zazen, is a brilliant tool for focusing the mind on the here and now. Laying aside the past and future for a session, we immerse ourselves in the present moment, fully aware of everything going around us.  Sometimes when we do this, feelings come up, of sadness or despair, joy or tranquillity.  We can ignore these feelings, and see them come back and back again, or we can engage with them.

Engaging with them does not mean to fall utterly within their tantalising spell, however. Through our previous sessions of simply being in the moment, focused, we have developed two great tools – the power of concentration and the power of detachment.  Think of them as your power tools 😉

Using concentration, we can fully focus on the emotion, the memory – whatever it is that pops into our head, giving it our full attention. With detachment, we see it for what it is – something that exists in our minds only, that has no substance.  Using both tools, we can delve even further if we so wish, looking to where the thoughts may stem from.  Then, equally with both tools, we can see that it is a choice as to whether we allow the thought or memory to control our lives, or whether we choose otherwise.

It’s our choice as to whether we hold on to things, or whether we engage with them.  You can’t fight what you don’t know. Face the fear, the emotion, and come out the other side, naming it, staring straight back at it, knowing that it no longer has a hold over you. Some demons never go away, but are silenced for a time, and letting go is never a one-time process. We have to let go each and every day, face our fears, our emotions, stoically in order to understand ourselves and others.  Enjoy the present moment.

It’s your choice.

 

Back to Reality

Reality is a slippery little devil.  Our minds are so adept at creating our own version of reality that the boundaries between what is real and what is not can become so blurred as to be indistinguishable.

Our thoughts can control us so much that they can keep us running around in circles, spinning off into the depths of our minds and in doing so, missing out on all the wonders and also the reality of the present moment.  Most people don’t enjoy being in the present moment – they avoid it at all costs. However, this is because they have probably, for the most part, never ever truly experienced being in the present moment. (See my previous blog post on mindtraps for more on this subject – https://downtheforestpath.wordpress.com/?s=mindtraps.)

But I digress.  Problems arise when our perceptions of reality become twisted with the imaginative and creative thought processes that our human brains are so capable of.  This was made clear when my husband received a phone call last night from someone he hadn’t heard from in a long time.  When he queried why the person hadn’t been in touch (he didn’t have their number) they stated that he had become upset at their last conversation, and that he had put the  phone down on them.

This was not true – I don’t believe he has ever put the phone down on anyone, and especially would never do so to this person.  This person had left the real conversation months ago, and was not satisfied with the outcome.  And so, this person developed in their minds ways that it would appear that they had been wronged, so that they could continue to avoid reality and live in their preferred state of being the victim.  They may have told and retold the story of the conversation in their minds over and over again, changing the details until, after a period of days, weeks or months, reality had changed. Stories change with the telling, we know this.  But we are fooling ourselves when we keep changing reality to suit our own egos and emotions.

I remember times when I’ve done this myself in the past – sometimes it is to justify certain behaviour, or to explain events.  The key is to become aware of when you are doing it, to stop and say “Right.  I know what the facts are, and I’m going to stick to them, and not change them to suit my own desires”.  I still get surprised when I see this in other people – I’ve had people accuse me of certain things, of promising others and of creating a totally separate reality to that which actually occurred.  It can be hurtful, at times, until you understand the thought process that creates this – you then realise that you had no part in it, that it became an entity totally foreign to your own being.

This doesn’t mean that you are not responsible for your actions – we all must be the best human beings we can at this present moment. Actions have consequences. However, we must also be aware and have some compassion for those who are caught up in their own realities, to a certain extent. We don’t have to live in them, or even partake of that reality, but we can understand the reasons why.

We have to learn how to live in the here and now.  Being alive and present in the here and now allows no time for emotional attachment to our thoughts and feelings – we still respond emotionally to situations, but we don’t become attached to the emotion itself.  As I left work yesterday, after a long staff meeting, my colleague was upset at what was said about our department, which was, unwittingly or not, derogatory.  Not only does this emphasise that we need to think very clearly before we speak, but also that we also cannot attach to the emotions that follow after a certain event.  I too was very displeased with the outcome of the meeting and the insinuation, and driving home could feel anger welling inside, threatening to ruin the whole drive home and run well into the evening. However, I caught myself, and brought myself back to reality and the present moment.  What was the present moment? Driving home, in the late afternoon sun, putting miles between myself and the event, figuratively and literally.  It was no longer happening now, except in my head.  I could either let it continue to live in my head, or simply enjoy the evening. I chose the latter.

This doesn’t mean that the issue will not be dealt with. It will, in a calm, rational and compassionate way.  But it won’t dictate reality for me – reality is what it is, and nothing more.  When the time is appropriate, the issue will be raised without undo emotional attachment to the residual event that still exists in our minds, which may have altered slightly or even greatly since the actual event occurred – reality is a slippery devil indeed.  I will not go over the event again and again in my mind, perhaps changing reality in doing so.  I will deal with the facts.

Let us continue to tell stories, but not make up the story of our own life.  Our own lives are brilliant and fascinating enough – we don’t need to add more drama to them.  By doing so, we will miss our own lives, living instead in our minds and foregoing some of the wondrous nature that is constantly unfolding right before our very eyes.  We can hurt other people by making up stories to suit our egos and our needs, and the person whom we hurt most is ourselves.

Reality is not such a bad place.  Really.

 

Living the Dream…

Life can have so many problems. Life isn’t just life for most people. Sometimes it’s like trying to fart against a thunderstorm. Other days it’s all unicorns and rainbows. But looking deeper, into the reasons why we hurt, why we suffer, we begin to see patterns emerging that can help us to stop living the dream. Stop living the dream? Why would we want to do that? Isn’t “living the dream” the whole goal of life?

Our problems can seem huge to us at times. Yet these problems are only the front line – there is usually a deeper problem underneath that hides in the layers of these other problems. The trick is to spot the tricky little devils. Sitting with the problems helps – literally sitting yourself down, maybe having a chat with yourself and then some good old mindful meditation can do the trick. The more we do this, the easier it gets to spot the real problem.

Today, I felt bad – I felt used. I thought that was my problem. After sitting myself down, I realised that wasn’t the real problem – the real problem was insecurity. Peeling away the layers revealed this deep-rooted problem – and then I realised that it wasn’t really a problem either. I was feeling insecure. A feeling is a thought with an emotion attached to it, which often manifests itself physically in the body. I was in a state of contraction – I needed to release the contraction somehow, and the best way to do that is to understand it. Once understood, it was an “oh, of course” moment. The bad feelings left. In fact, it wasn’t even bad – it was just life.

Our problems, our depression, our anger occurs when life doesn’t happen the way we would like it to. When we understand this, we see our folly – life happens. The winds blow without first consulting us, people die without saying goodbye, friends come and friends go – there’s nothing we can do about that. What we can do is alter our reactions to it all.

So, instead of living the dream, why not try living the reality? That is where the real gem lies.

Mindtraps

Every day we are caught in mind-traps – little prisons of our own making.  We are constantly hijaked by our thoughts and feelings, our attachments to them and our egos, that we spin endlessly in circles until we fall down upon our butts.  The key to breaking free of these mind traps is through observation.

When we meditate in the Zen style, or do zazen as it is called, we become aware of our bodies and our thoughts.  We do not “zone out”, we are not “away with the faeries” or pondering the mysteries of life – in zazen we focus on pure experience.  This focus helps us in our lives when we are not in zazen. We are aware of how our bodies are feeling – whether our breath is shallow or deep, that twinge in our back, whether our facial muscles are tense or relaxed.  We also turn that awareness to our surroundings, listening to the birdsong outside, or the traffic, feeling the breeze or the sunlight upon our shoulders.  We are aware as much as is humanly possible of everything that is around us and within us.  It is no easy task.

Our thoughts are constantly seeking to distract us from the comfortable reality that we have created. Even though this reality may be a false reality, still it is more comfortable than sitting, thinking about our headache or the plain “boredom” of doing zazen.  We daydream, we think through all our life’s problems, we spin off in attempts to do anything but simply be in the moment, because we feel that we deserve otherwise. Remember that old saying, “there is no time like the present”?  Similarly, there is no experience other than this present moment – mayhap the best thing you could be doing is simply experiencing it right now.

We like to think. There is nothing wrong with thinking – we can solve problems, work out situations with a little forethought. We plan – and again, there is nothing wrong with having life plans. It is our attachment to these plans that sets us off in another mindtrap – where if we don’t achieve them our life can feel in ruins.

In zazen, we learn to observe.  We sit, and we observe our bodies’ attempts to defy our intention of just sitting still and being in the moment. Why do our bodies do this? Because they reflect our thoughts – our thoughts don’t want to sit still – they want to run riot.  In zazen, it is not so much controlling our thoughts, pushing them away or yelling at them to be quiet like unruly children – we observe the thoughts and gradually, through observing them, they become quieter.  A new thought is a wonderful, shiny thing that we want to explore – whether it is a “good” thought or a “bad” thought.  When we have observed that thought 100 times, it becomes a lot less interesting.  This is what zazen is about.

If we think about what happened to us that upset us during the day, we can easily become lost in our emotional attachment to it.  If we simply observe the thought – “Oh, I’m having a thought about this again” and then return our attention to simply sitting and being in the moment, then we are on the path to freedom from these mindtraps.  Again, it is not easy – we may have to do this 10, 100 or 1,000 times before the thoughts settle down and we tire of them.  With persistence, they will.

We must be careful, however, to simply observe, without “being” the observer.  If we become the observer, then we have created a separate entity that does not exist. If we are simply observing, then we are the pure moment. The past does not exist, neither does the future. It is only this moment, that is constantly changing, that exists.  If thoughts about the past occur, you can observe them, but then ask yourself – “where is the past right now?” It does not exist. When we worry about the future, we can ask ourself “where is the future right now?”. It does not exist. Only this present, everchanging moment exists.

I love to daydream – but not when I am in meditation.  I set aside a time in the day to daydream, to come up with wonderful stories that may see the light of day in future novels or short stories.  There is nothing wrong with imagination – it is a gift that should be used every day. We must learn, however, not to become lost in it, this imaginary world, as it is so much better than our reality can seem.  Living in a pure moment does not leave us unthinking, mindless zombies.  We are totally and completely present, truly living life to the fullest.  That is the greatest gift.

It is time to break free of your mindtraps – look at what thoughts keep occurring, what keeps rising to the surface when you are being silent and still.  By observing them you will notice them, notice the patterns that are created, the emotions and physical pain that may be attached to these thoughts and how they so easily control your life.  Once we see the pattern, we can weave our way out into a new pattern, into a new cycle.  Through zazen, we can take this into our everyday lives, and so, when someone upsets us, or hurts us, or brings us joy – we can see the pattern that is created and either choose to remain within it, or weave a new pattern upon the web of life.  We can either live in this very moment, or stay within our mindtraps. The choice is ours.