Notes on the Dhamma Talk, 7th October 2010
‘The Queen Who Would Cover Her Kingdom with Leather’
This year’s talks focus on the theme of Sati Sampajanya – or ‘mindfulness’ as it is always translated. This is a current topic of interest in the therapy side of psychology, and one that is well researched. Psychology has taken mindfulness out of its original context and is using it in a secular manner, as a therapeutic tool. It works in this context, and is a key, new component in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – which is the main form of psychology today in the Anglo-Saxon world (different countries favour other kinds of psychology). CBT revolves around the idea that it is not really what happens to you that is important, so much as your views and relationship to what happens.
Mindfulness (as taught in Psychology)is the ability to just experience, without judgment, to allow things to be and to run their course. It is a form of ‘letting go’ in the sense that attachment does not allow you to just be with experience. ‘Attachment’ always has a vested interest; it is the pushing/pulling force of agitation. If you can ‘let go’ you should be able to function better as a human, a family person, a worker…
It should be noted that in Buddhism ‘mindfulness’ is much deeper and sharper than the above description.
The central tenant of Buddhism is that understanding the ‘way things are’ is the way to liberation. Thus the practise is one of watching, observing, learning all the time. There is no dogma here. You do not have to believe anything. In fact, your beliefs and opinions are something of an obstacle. Everyone has opinions about just about everything. Ask a room of people what happens when you die, and you will have a long night of debate. Ask everyone who actually knows and sees what happens when you die, then hopefully none but the most arrogant will say they actually know.
Perhaps because you don’t really know, some people turn to a higher authority. Maybe the Buddha knows. Maybe Jesus, Krishamurti or Eckhart Tolle know!
But latching on to a higher authority still does not make you know. You just have replaced one set of beliefs with another. In Buddhist practise we want to replace belief systems with what we can actually know for ourselves directly. Meditation is the way of investigation and learning based on what can be actually seen.
It is clear to a meditator that some of the time while meditating the minds wanders around unaware of itself. Other times it returns ‘home’ and you are back in the present moment. What you experience in that present moment might be agitation, dullness, sleepiness, concentration … or whatever. So long as the mind is aware of itself, you are mindful. When you are caught up in something, including a meditation object, you are not being mindful.
Do you remember being a kid, and Sunday’s were an endless stretch of time? Or Summer holidays? What has changed with your perception of time?
Alva Noe in NPR magazine writes an excellent article on this topic. In short, you form habits (which the fabulous and underrated classic psychologist George Kelly called ‘constructs’). The habits enable you to perform functions without conscious engagement. Driving a car for instance is, surprisingly, mostly unsconscious. It is called ‘highway hypnosis’ in psychology, and refers to the fact that on a long journey you can drift off into thoughts and dreams with not much conscious engagement of the the action of driving. Most of your life is spent in habits – which are largely unrequiring of conscious attention. Walking a familiar route, engaging a familiar passtime, cooking, painting … as a kid everything was new, and you had to keep paying attention. As you get older and stay in the realm of the familiar you do not need conscious attention as the habitual ‘auto-pilot’ can handle most of your day.
With any action you break it up into a certain field, or a ‘vector arc’ as the article calls it. (Story Arc, or Activity Arc might be better terms). The journey to work for instance might be counted as one event. It requires little conscious engagement – you don’t have to pay much attention and in your mind you are counting it as one thing, one event. If you go somewhere new on the other hand, you will need to pay attention to many things many times, so your perception of the movement of time changes.
This is understood in sports. You have to pay particular attention to details, such as how to place your feet in golf, how to grip a tennis racket, or how to throw certain punches or defenses in boxing. Learning to drive is the same – at first it is a chain of tricky tasks each of which requires conscious, deliberate attention. Once learned you leave them to habit.
The modern way to act is to learn all of the principles of acting, then forget that you know them
Interestingly, this is the real mechanism of Karma – it is accelerated learning. Where you have deliberate, conscious action, there is heavy karma for good or bad – more on this in the talk on Karma soon.
Breaking up Story Arcs
Mindfulness meditation is about interrupting the flow of the mind that leaves its ‘home’ and gets lost in thought or some other sense. Once practised in meditation, you bring it into daily life also. Interrupt the flow of the mind into unconscious habits, and start looking at things as if they are new again. Don’t get caught up in long story arcs, break them up with constant returning to the present moment.
Here is one example – do you ‘love’ your wife/husband/kids/parents ?
You will say you do, and mean it. You are not wrong, but you have latched on to a long story arc. If you pay attention things change. When you act out of anger, you are not ‘loving’. If you are acting out of jealousy, you are not ‘caring’. The meditator sees a string of changing emotions, and motivations in place of the comfortable habits/opinions/constructs that were previously in place. It is much easier to get things in perspective this way, and easier to let go too. Do you ‘like’ your job? If you are mindful, the question becomes less and less meaningful. You just see a chain of motivations, of liking/disliking ….
Now you can put into place the teaching on Right Effort – when unwholesome qualities arise, you abandon them. When wholeseome qualities arise, you maintain them. You are working in the present moment only. Don’t worry about the story-arcs!
The title of the talk is ‘The Queen who would cover Her Kingdom with Leather’. This was a Queen who stubbed her toe one day. She told her ministers to cover the whole kingdom with soft leather to prevent it happening again. The wise minister advised her to just cover her feet, instead of the kingdom. And so shoes were invented.
The story is quite sharp. The ‘Kingdom’ is your ‘self’, as in terms of your character and personality (not a permanent ‘self’ or Atman). The feet are the point of contact with the kingdom. Just as the present moment is the point of contact with the world. You don’t need to engage in complex psychology to fix your flaws, you just work on seeing the mind. Is this a wholesome quality arising right now? Is this state of mind right now unwholesome? Am I really ‘awake’?
We use stories like this as a way to keep these concepts in mind. When you are worrying, thinking, fixing …. consider if you are trying to cover your kingdom with leather.
Actually the process of breaking up your story arcs gets ever faster and more immediate. If you practise mindfulness, then you see the rapid arising/ceasing of the mind in its true form. As the attention refines, you start to even see gaps between one set of thoughts and another. At this point, you see good and bad qualities arising, ceasing, and also the gap inbetween.
You won’t have changed much from the outside. People around you might not even notice. Bernadette Roberts, in The Experience of No Self, describes undergoing the most intense and life changing experiences, even while married and raising children – who were unaware of her trials.
We think of ourselves as originally emerging from the unknown, from darkness, nothingness or non-existence into the light of consciousness. But as consciousness develops we discover the increasing ability to see in the dark, see into the nothingness or mystery within ourselves and eventually realize that this darkness and nothingness is the divine from which we emerged and with which we are one. Thus we discover that our original darkness IS true light…
In fact, as your ‘self’ or ego management of the mind starts to get out of the way, you become ever more ‘normal’. If you have spent time with some of the really respected spiritual masters (male and female of course) then you will know they are very ‘ordinary’. Even while you act and live in the world, you see yourself almost as a third person. Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of modern Singapore, recently said in an interview about the tough and controversial actions he undertook as leader “..yes, but I laughed at myself trying to keep up a bold front’. He is also a meditator, although in a Catholic tradition (he is not Catholic himself).
With some practise you can sit in the silent mind. There is still activity going on most of the time, but your presence is with the silence. The mind gathers together (ekabhava) or unifies. Here there is a sense of completion, and a sense of wholeness. If your attention goes out to the senses at this point, you see it as a scattering of the mind, as selling out the happiness of being still, for the course ‘liking’ that is sense pleasure.
It has to be this way – otherwise, the mind would never be willing to trade the pleasure of the senses. According to all mystic traditions, the beauty of the still mind, unified and awake, is infinitely superior to the mind that is caught in the sense pleasures.
It is not too complicated or too far off in the future after lifetimes of hard practise. Anyone can get glimpses of this. It is the basis of ‘spiritual experiences’. The trouble is that the ego takes over and starts to assert control …. and yet this kind of experience is far more fundamental than anything the thinking mind can grasp. Now, don’t worry too much about your character/personality. Once you have stepped beyond it, however briefly, you are firmly on the path.