I hope that all is well with you and you are enjoying the first signs of Spring.
Buddha Day is coming up soon. This is the biggest festival day in the Buddhist calendar and commemorates the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Traditionally it is celebrated on the full moon day in April or May (May 26th), but different Buddhist centres choose a different day to celebrate it on. In Triratna we normally celebrate all festivals on a Sunday so that more people can attend.
Everything takes place on the same Zoom link, so you can drop in to some parts or treat the day as a retreat for a more intensive day of practice on the most significant festival in the Buddhist calendar.
10am-1pm – Going for Refuge to the Buddha – meditation, reflection and mantra 2.15-3.15pm – Who is the Buddha? – a collective storytelling event 4-5.30pm – The Buddha’s Social Revolution – a keynote talk from Subhuti 7-9pm – Festival Day Puja with Mitra ceremonies
To get you in the mood, you might also be interested in this collection of videos from last year’s international Buddha Day https://thebuddhistcentre.com/stories/toolkit/buddha-day/ . Hopefully they are doing another one this year but I am not sure of the date yet.) It was a real blast mixing up activities from all over the world and multiple time zones.
Closer to home, we are continuning our Vision and Transformation course at Hertford. It does not matter if you have missed previous weeks. Beginners and newcomers are always very welcome.
Ethics is the day-to-day implementation of this creative and responsive attitude to the world. We are attempting to be able to introduce awareness and clarity where there is confusion, understanding and sympathy where there is irritation, generosity where there is the pushing and shoving of too busy a world.
As we develop an ethical sensibility, we see more and more how we always dwell in possibility, how each moment contains choices and opportunities for such creativity. It is interesting to note that the traditional Buddhist Pali words that denote whether an act is ethical or unethical (kusala and akusala) mean ‘skilful’ and ‘unskilful’. So ethical practice involves developing a skill. For example, if someone has to give criticism that they know the recipient will find difficult, it requires an intention of loving-kindness, but also skilled communication and qualities of tact and sensitivity. Thus it is something that we can learn and improve upon.
The tendency to see ethics in terms of rules has, unfortunately, gained a real hold in our culture. Sometimes when you talk to people about non-violence, they immediately want to know what you’d do if an evil dictator was about to press the button to start nuclear war and you just happen to be in the same room as them with a gun in your hand. They’re really hoping they can catch you out by having to admit there might be circumstances in which you would need to use violence. They’re interpreting, and they think you are interpreting, ethics in terms of black-and-white regulations, absolute rules. But ethics are principles to be applied in a complex world alongside other important principles and considerations.
Deciding between the death of a megalomaniac or nuclear holocaust is thankfully not a choice I’m confronted with on a daily basis. There are, however, dozens of occasions each day when I could choose to act with more awareness, or greater kindness. It is here that ethics comes into play. Discussions of ethics are often couched in terms of ‘What would you do if X happened?’ But perhaps a better question would be ‘What kind of person do I want to become?’ It is more important to develop the good qualities with which to make ethical decisions, than to know all the rights and wrongs of specific situations.
If we notice ourselves relating to ethics in terms of fixed rules, we may need to free ourselves of this mindset. On the other hand, it can be helpful to have ethical guidelines. They help us to be conscious of our ethical values, to remember those values and bear them in mind from day to day. These guidelines become benchmarks that we use to train ourselves, to develop more skill in the ethical sphere. They become apart of our way of life.
exercise – living on a desert island
This is an exercise I’ve sometimes done in groups, but you can try it as a reflection to do on your own. Imagine you are stranded on a desert island with several other people, and you are together devising guidelines on how you should behave towards each other. What five guidelines would you suggest to your fellow islanders? Formulate them and write them down. Try to come up with your personal response, what you believe is most important, rather than repeat ethical guidelines you have come across elsewhere (including Buddhist ones). Do you find it easy or difficult to come up with ideas? Later, you can compare your list with the traditional Buddhist guidelines, such as the five precepts discussed below. Are there overlaps and similarities? Are there notable differences?
No matter how many times I’ve seen this exercise repeated in different groups of people, there is a noticeable overlap in the guidelines among the different groups. This suggests that, even if we are not fully conscious of them, we do have ethical values that inform our lives. We have a strong intuitive sense of ethics.
I love this time of year as Spring is in the air, and I even got the sun lounger out of the shed yesterday. This annual ritual heralds the advent of sunshine, and lighter warmer evenings.
Also the pandemic continues to contract as more people get vaccinated. Having got used to this hermit like existence, it is actually possible to start dreaming of meeting up again with friends and family in real life once again. Plus we will be able to go away on retreat which is something I really miss.
It has been so long, that I have almost forgotten what all this was like. But I know it was good, and will be good again 🙂
I am not sure yet about our group. But I am guessing that things will stay on zoom for at least the next couple of months.
In other news we have a course starting on the 13th April – Vision and Transformation. Like all our courses we will teach meditation from scratch, newcomers are very welcome, and you don’t have to “be a Buddhist”. This one will also focus on getting in touch with our spiritual vision, and transforming our lives into more alignment with that.
No need to book, just turn up on 13th April.
06 April – Paramjyoti will talk on Milarepa 13 April – Keith will kick off week 1 of the course 20 April – Mangala will lead week 2 27 April – Amber will lead week 3 04 May – Jnanadaya will lead week 4 11 May – Padmajata will lead week 5 18 May – Karunadhara will lead Week 6
buddhist ethics It is worth reflecting on our predisposition to the idea of an ethical life, since we often, I think, inherit from our surrounding culture a seriously impoverished view of what ethics is about. Or sometimes we have negative associations with the idea of ethics and morality because our previous experience was of it being inculcated in us in a narrow or dogmatic way. I’ve frequently noticed upon meeting someone and their discovering I’m a Buddhist, their first question is something like, ‘What does that mean you’re not allowed to do, then?’ or, ‘Does that mean you’re not allowed to drink?’ They identify ethics with rules, and with not being allowed to do what you want.
My reply to their questions is that as a Buddhist I can do whatever I like. However, I might choose to do, or not do, some things because of the effects I know they will have on me and on others. Buddhist ethics is not a list of rules and regulations, but about trying to make wise and aware choices. In the last two chapters we looked at meditation as the cultivation of positive frames of mind: those of mindfulness and loving-kindness. The practice of ethics involves acting in ways that are motivated by these qualities. If we do this, certain consequences follow. First, the positive frame of mind that we’ve acted from is reinforced. We are cultivating happiness for ourselves. Secondly, it has a much more positive effect on the world than if we had acted on the basis of a negative frame of mind. We are also cultivating happiness for others.
In other words, we could say that we are trying to bring creativity to our actions, in the sense of bringing awareness into our interactions with the world, instead of acting in the same tired, habitual, irritable, or busy way. When we are being creative, in the sense the word is being used here, we bring something new to the situation. We are more able to rise above a difficult situation. Whatever happens, we will try to be creative; to do so becomes deeply part of who we are. Someone like the Dalai Lama seems to be creative in this way. To all the troubles his people have faced under Chinese occupation, he could have easily – and understandably – responded with hatred or anger. But he seems to rise above the situation and encourage others to respond peacefully and with equanimity. This example has inspired many people all over the world.
Put another way, happiness is not something you can ‘get’ if only your life would work out just right. Happiness is a by-product of an aware and creative approach to life. It is this creativity that is the true source of happiness and contentment. That’s why you can sometimes meet someone who has everything materially, but still doesn’t seem satisfied. Or, you may meet someone whose life circumstances are hard, who undergoes suffering, but they meet it with an inner richness and optimism that is uplifting to witness. Despite their difficulties, they seem to be happy.
I personally feel a new optimism in the air. Covid rates seem to be falling quite fast, more and more people are getting vaccinated and we have already had a couple of nice sunny days.
I am looking forward to the time when we can start meeting up in person again at the Millbridge Rooms in Hertford, but at the moment everything is still zoom only.
Just to let you know what is coming up on Zoom.
Please join us 🙂
9th March – Paramajyoti is leading the class. After the meditation we will be exploring the poem “Meditation” by Sangharakshita which contains some deep insights on the subject. 16th March – Jnanadaya is leading the class. He is currently on staff at the London Buddhist Centre, although he is leaving there soon to return to Buckinghamshire. 23rd March – Padmajata 30th March – not yet known 6th April – not yet known 13th April – Keith leads week one of a new six week course “Vision and Transformation” which explores how we can start with a vision of a higher more expansive state of consciousness, and then how we can then transform our lives based on that vision. 20th April – Mangala is leading week two
Basically, just zoom in at https://hertfordbuddhistgroup.co.uk/zoom around 7.20pm for a prompt start at 7.30pm. Newcomers and beginners are always welcome. You don’t have to “be a Buddhist”. There is no charge. The class ends at 9.30pm. Every class includes meditation with full instruction.
Do not take lightly small misdeeds, Believing they can do no harm: Even a tiny spark of fire Can set alight a mountain of hay.
Do not take lightly small good deeds, Believing they can hardly help: For drops of water one by one In time can fill a giant pot.12
Three weeks into a weekly meditation course, a man came to speak to -me. ‘If I carry on with this,’ he said, looking at me intently, ‘doesn’t it mean that I’m going to have to change my life?’
He’d already seen that if he seriously engaged with meditation it was going to have implications for his whole life. Meditation wasn’t just something one did to unwind for half an hour at the end of the day, but a whole new way of living.
Taking up meditation doesn’t necessarily entail living in a remote cave, or setting fire to our TV in a fit of renunciation. But if we are systematically cultivating awareness and loving-kindness, it is bound to have an effect on how we act on a day-to-day level. As we begin to enjoy a greater clarity of mind, we might start to resist aspects of our lives that detract from that awareness. Or we may start to notice emotional attitudes that are unhelpful, which might cause us to act in ways we regret, and we realize we want to revise them.
So we start making changes. Sometimes we do this without noticing – it just happens automatically. For example, we realize that formerly when we ate our breakfast, we would have listened to the radio while we read the paper. Now we only read the paper, or listen to the radio, but not both. We notice that these days we prefer to be without too much distraction around us.
Sometimes the change is more of a deliberate choice, yet it still comes easily and naturally. We might decide, for instance, to drink less alcohol because we’ve noticed that it doesn’t help our meditation the following morning. In the event, we are surprised how little we miss it.
At other times, we decide to make a change that involves a bit more of a wrench, but we do it anyway. Although part of us resists, there is enough of us behind doing it to make it seem like a good idea. For example, when we have done the loving-kindness meditation for awhile, we may feel we want to be vegetarian, but we also know we will miss eating meat. So perhaps we decide to change our diet over a period of time, say by not eating meat but still eating fish for a while.
In other words, we start lifting the practice away from the meditation cushion and spreading it more widely into our daily lives. We increasingly want to be able to act on the basis of the positive states of mind that we are cultivating in meditation. We aspire to change ourselves, move away from habits that limit us, and become better able to embody awareness and embrace loving-kindness. We want, if we can, to have a more positive effect on the world. Taking awareness and loving-kindness into our lives and out into the world is the practice of ethics.
exercise – what about ethics?
Take a few minutes to consider your thoughts, feelings, and associations with the idea of being ethical. What does this mean to you? Does it sound pious and off-putting? Or is it necessary, but dull? Or do you find the idea interesting, even inspiring? Jot down any responses as they occur to you.
The final stage of the loving-kindness meditation has two aspects. First, we think of the four people in the practice so far (ourselves, the good friend, the neutral person, and the difficult person), and try to cultivate this sense of well-wishing to them equally. Then we gradually include more and more people. We can do this in a number of ways. We could try to sense loving-kindness radiating out in all directions, or even visualize it in the form of light or a colour expanding outwards. Or we might imagine people in different parts of the world.
In our imaginations we can travel north, south, east, and west, trying to get a sense of all the people we might meet. Or we can bring to mind people in different situations. At this very moment babies are being born and old people are breathing their last few breaths, some people are going to bed and others are getting up to a new day, some are facing terrible suffering, while others experience joy.
Sometimes we find this stage of the practice difficult. It may have been going along quite well, but then trying to hold all these people and situations in our imagination is too much and we lose the thread. If this happens, we can take a more modest approach: just thinking of new people and situations. The principle is simply to expand outwards in whatever way we can.
Whatever technique we use, we are trying to bring about a warm well-wishing to all that live. We want anyone and everyone to be happy. This is a high ideal, but sometimes when this stage of the practice goes well, it feels as though loving-kindness is flowing through us. We can feel light, expansive, and open-hearted.
exercise – reaching out into the world
Now incorporate this final stage into your loving-kindness meditation.
You could start by thinking of people in a distant place you have recently seen on TV or read about in a newspaper, putting yourself in their shoes in the same way as in stage three. Or, if this does not help you to connect emotionally, you could try thinking of a distant place you have visited, and the people who are there right now. Alternatively, you might imagine a part of the world where you have a relative or a friend, and then imagine other people around them. The trick is to find some way of establishing an emotional connection, but not being impatient if it doesn’t always work, or takes a long time.
Through this meditation, and through using the same principles in our actual daily life, we can radically transform our emotional attitudes. We can come to a much better understanding of our own emotions and learn to see others more kindly.
Of course, we will never completely understand other people and should be careful of being too keen to analyse and think we understand them. Each of our histories, influences, and hidden potentials are too deep and subtle for that. We should always hold our opinions about people with a degree of tentativeness. In fact, we will never completely understand ourselves, let alone other people. As we grow older, one of the things we realize is that we will always be, to some extent, a mystery, even to ourselves. There will be parts of ourselves we never fully perceive or comprehend. Despite this, our understanding of ourselves and of others can always go deeper, and so, in consequence, can our ability to love.
1) This is a very unique time of year. A time where “year in review”, “5 year plan”, “10 year plan” types of thoughts rise to the surface.
My own life never really much panned out according to my plans. It just seemed to be a succession of accidents – some fortunate, some unfortunate, most very insignificant, and a handful extremely significant.
Nonetheless, I think it is extremely useful every now and again to just take a step back from our “hamster running in a wheel” type existences and just re-evaluate our lives a bit.
Maybe our life is full of joy and meaning. In which case that is great.
And maybe it isn’t. In that case, the question arises is there anything you can do about it? Or do you just have to grin and bear it.
So many of us live our lives to keep others happy – parents, wife, husband, partner, kids, family, boss, co-workers, customers etc. So many people are making constant demands on us.
So just make sure that you realise you do actually have a degree of choice. This is not to say we have to make dramatic changes in our external life. More important is the inner change we can make in our awareness. To have more inner freedom and choice, and less running on autopilot with our voiceovers.
Did you spend 2020 wisely? Did you live from your highest ideals? Did you do what you really wanted? Is it a year that you will look back on fondly, full of meaning, kindness and growth?
In a sense, it does not really matter, as we can’t go back and change the past. However, we can use this contemplation to steer us on a better course in 2021, and for the rest of our lives.
I have personally found that what really helps give my life more meaning is when I take a step back and see things from a higher perspective. Normally I would go on a retreat, but I am waiting till the covid risk recedes a bit before I do this. Another way of doing this is to participate in a course.
2) Just like every other year, we are holding a beginners meditation and Buddhism course in January. This is ALWAYS our busiest time of the year.
People are full of good intentions to turn over a new leaf. That is of course a good thing. The bad thing is that we are not like this the rest of the year. But that doesn’t mean we should just give up and be cynical about the whole exercise.
It is not about joining an organisation, having to believe in any belief system, surrender to a guru, or pay lots of money etc. You do not have to know anything about Buddhism, or know how to meditate, or anything like that.
There is no charge. We are doing this freely, as we really believe in what we are doing – becoming more conscious together, building a supportive spiritual community, creating a loving space which supports our inner journeys etc.
Maybe you have never attended one of our classes, maybe you have come once or a few times before. In any case, you are very welcome to join us any Tuesday evening. We start proceedings very promptly at 7.30pm and finish about 9.30pm. Best to get there about 7.20.
This year we are doing the acclaimed Radical Dharma course. I hope that you enjoy it and also get a lot out of it. See you there hopefully 🙂
05 January 2021 Keith 12 January 2021 Amber 19 January 2021 Nandaketu 26 January 2021 Jnanadaya 02 February 2021 Paramajyoti 09 February 2021 Padmajata 16 February 2021 Karunadhara
Future Tuesdays – to be confirmed
3) 8 week online Mindfulness courses January 2021
Helen Bond has been part of the Triratna Buddhist community for over 20 years and is a qualified counsellor. She is offering two 8-week mindfulness courses on zoom in January 2021; starting on Monday January 25th; one in the afternoon from 2-4pm and one in the evening from 7-9pm.
MBSR (Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy) are based on mindfulness courses developed originally by the acclaimed teacher Jon Kabat Zinn; offering a scientifically proven, evidence-based approach that demonstrates how attending to experience in a non-judgemental way can help you to face stressful situations with increased confidence and improve overall well-being
The course consists of talks, guided meditations (sitting and movement) and exercises as well as a chance to discuss your experience in breakout groups. You will be sent guided meditations and encouraged to bring mindfulness into everyday life.
Although the course is secular, it is based on Buddhist principles, and is suitable for those who are experienced meditators or those who are new to mindfulness practices – no prior experience of mindfulness is necessary.
There will be a joining fee of £40 and then by donation. If you are interested in attending a course, or would like to know more about the course please contact Helen at firstname.lastname@example.org . Please indicate your preference for Monday afternoon or evening.
4) If you’d like to find out more about the zoom sangha yoga class please email Amber at email@example.com . The class is led by Amber and is every Tuesday 6.15pm to 7.15pm .
I hope that you have a wonderful New Year’s Eve and 2021.
2) Our Tuesday evening zoom class (7.30pm to 9.30pm) continues as usual throughout December. We won’t take a break this year, as most people will be at home anyway, and might fancy getting together with their sangha friends for a bit. Total beginners and newcomers are always very welcome. Just turn up between 7.15 pm and 7.30pm. It is also fine if you arrive late or leave early.
1/12 Nandaketu 8/12 Karunadhara will talk about his work as a Buddhist prison chaplain. I know he works in several prisons in Kent, and he has some great stories. Plus I really think it is an amazing thing to do. I expect many people behind bars will see his chaplaincy and sangha building in there as a bit of a lifeline. 15/12 Paramjyoti is going to be leading an evening around the poem “Men and Flowers” by D. H. Lawrence. 22/12 Regulars will be performing music, songs, poetry, showing off thier artwork etc. If you want to perform ask Katherine. 29/12 Padmajata is leading the class.
Then on 5th January it is the start of a new year. New Year = New Mind! After a lot of indulgence and soul searching in the Christmas period, people often feel the need to do something positive to work on themselves to prepare for the year ahead.
And what better way to do that than to come on a meditation and Buddhism course. We will be presenting the 6 Week Radical Dharma course created by the Sheffield Buddhist Centre. No need to book. Just turn up on the 5th Jan.
3) Zoom yoga is at Tuesdays at 6.15 pm. Email Amber at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
4) Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an evidence-based approach to help people deal more effectively with stress and anxiety and improve their overall well-being. The course meets for two and half hours, weekly for eight weeks. It is suitable for those who are experienced meditators or those who are new to mindfulness practices – no prior experience of mindfulness is necessary.
My good friend Helen Bond is hoping to run face to face courses on Monday afternoons and/or Monday evenings in the Hertford area from January 2021, depending on government guidelines. The course may be partly or completely on zoom if we cannot meet in person or if people indicate that zoom would be their preference. There will be an upfront charge to cover costs (room hire, handouts; amount dependent on venue and participant numbers) and then by donation. If you are interested in attending a course, or would like to know more about MBSR please contact Helen at email@example.com. Please indicate your preference for Monday afternoon or evening; face to face or zoom.
That’s all for now.
Have a great Sangha Day, Christmas and the rest of the year!
Fourth stage of Metta Bhavana – the person we find difficult
In the fourth stage of the practice, we become aware of someone we find difficult, irritating, or antagonistic. We try to overcome any ill will and, instead, cultivate a concern for their welfare. This is very challenging indeed and we may feel a resistance even to the idea of attempting it! But, although it seems counter-intuitive, the best chance for our own happiness consists in thinking about the happiness of others.
When we are new to the practice, it might be best to start with someone we experience as just mildly awkward or irritating, rather than someone we find really difficult. Otherwise we may end our loving-kindness meditation with gritted teeth and steam coming out of our ears! With time and experience, we learn how to work in this stage of the practice and may feel robust enough to take on those whom we find more seriously difficult. I know many people who have gradually transformed deep negative feelings towards certain people, or vastly improved key relationships in their life that have been problematic.
In this stage of the practice we first simply acknowledge our feelings, owning any anger or ill will, and just trying to soften, relax, and let it go. We can reflect on how useless such feelings are. They just cause pain and disturbance in our minds and, if we act from that basis, they also cause pain for others.
When we are in a state of hatred, we don’t see the other person as they really are. We see what we dislike writ large, so that we can’t appreciate other aspects of them. In the meditation we can work against this tendency, bringing to mind their positive qualities, and reflecting that although we don’t like them, there are probably other people who dolour view of them is only part of the story.
It is worth being aware of assumptions. Someone we don’t like arrives late for a meeting and we complain to ourselves. ‘She is always late. She’s just avoiding this meeting because she knows its not going to go her way.’ Then she turns up, full of apologies, and explains that on the way to work she found a little boy who’d lost his mother, so she had to help him. We sit there feeling glad we’d not criticized her out loud! Perhaps our policy should be to give people the benefit of the doubt, trying to assume the best about them and their motives. Maybe we need to be especially careful with those we find difficult, when we can often be overly suspicious of their motives. Of course, this does not mean being naive. If we know full well they are taking us for a ride, we need to do something about it. But we should be careful that we do know for sure, rather than jumping to a conclusion.
As well as trying to loosen our narrow, subjective view of the person we find difficult, we can go even further and attempt to look at the situation from their point of view. For example, I’m irritated because someone is being a bit antagonistic towards me at work. He makes the odd sarcastic comment and seems opposed to anything I suggest. Perhaps in the meditation I can reflect on why he might be doing this. There will be a reason. He did it because, rightly or wrongly, consciously or unconsciously, he thought it would make him happy. He, like everyone else, and like me, just wants to be happy, so he acts in ways that he thinks will produce this happiness. But how was it that he thought being sarcastic could contribute to his happiness? Perhaps I was a bit short with him the previous day and, feeling hurt, he is trying to show me his determination not to be treated like that. Realizing this, I can try to take his point of view into account. I can try to speak to him more sensitively.
Or perhaps I recently got promoted to a post that he’d also applied for, and I realize he is feeling rather competitive at the moment. In this case, although his feelings are not my fault, I can still be aware of what is going on and act appropriately. Perhaps I am careful to be extra appreciative of him in the next few weeks (without making it too obvious, of course). Rather than acting on the basis of my irritation, I have looked deeply and seen the situation from the other person’s perspective. I can try to act in a way that helps him and, in fact, this will be what helps me too. I’m responding with compassion to his mistaken idea of what will make him happy. Such a compassionate response is more likely to help him towards a better idea of where happiness is to be found.
exercise – understanding the difficulties of others
Now you can try incorporating this fourth stage of the meditation into your own practice. Allow a few minutes for each stage until you arrive at the ‘difficult person’ stage.
You bring this person to mind as in the other stages, and notice and acknowledge your feelings towards them. Then choose one of the approaches explored above.
If your feelings are strong, it might be best just to work on letting go. When you notice your mind following an irritable train of thought, notice the thoughts and then let them go. When you notice anger in your heart, or a physical sense of tightness and tension, try to soften and let go. You can ask yourself if these negative feelings are worth holding on to, and who benefits from them.
Or you can spend time thinking about this person’s positive qualities that you do not usually notice or give them credit for. Or you might try to understand why it is they behave in a way you find difficult, try to see the situation from their point of view.
Again, it is good to vary the approach over time, to take notes, and notice what works for you. Sometimes, if your feelings are strong, you cannot deal with them in one meditation. Don’t worry about this. If the negative feelings persist, leave that person for a while and come back to stage one of the practice, or just to physical relaxation of the body, or watching the breath.
This is, of course, much harder in practice than in theory. In real life, events unfold so quickly. Our feelings of hurt smart and burn, they seem instantly to transform themselves into indignation or irritation, and then we can’t seem to stop ourselves acting on them. But that is why loving-kindness is something we have to practise both within meditation and without. We gradually learn to see things from a more objective, compassionate point of view.
Another aspect of loving-kindness, and of seeing people in a more rounded, realistic way, is forgiveness. My Buddhist teacher once said, ‘I am much worse than you think I am, but also much better.’10 He was asking his followers, who perhaps had a tendency to put him on a pedestal, to try to see him more as he really was – as a person with a mix of good qualities and human weaknesses. The aphorism is true of us all. We are probably all capable of acting in far worse ways than we’d like to think, but we are also capable of much more good than we dare imagine. Human life is complex, and we can only learn as we go along, by making mistakes. When I look back on my life and see the times when I’ve caused most harm to others, it was not out of a deliberate wish to do so, but out of an insensitivity born of inexperience, or sheer naivety, or because I was blind to the needs of others because of my own desires. Because we will all make mistakes, we need to be able to forgive. We need self-forgiveness and forgiveness towards others. As William Blake said, ‘Mutual forgiveness of each vice, such are the Gates of Paradise.’
When someone has done us a serious wrong, forgiveness can be very difficult and may take a long time. However, the example of South Africa is inspiring. When apartheid came to an end, and they had their first democratic elections, there was much debate about how to bring to justice those who had committed atrocities. People eventually realized that retribution through the courts was not an option. Apart from the practical difficulties of providing evidence, there was fear that the whole process would lead to more bitterness and violence. For this reason, some people called for a general amnesty and writing off of crimes. Others argued that this would be to ignore the principle of justice. So a Truth and Reconciliation Committee was formed. Perpetrators were offered amnesty, but only if they came forward and admitted their crimes. Victims were also encouraged to tell of the terrible atrocities that had been inflicted on them or their families. The committee ensured that these stories were heard, including by those who probably committed the crimes. The victims would not have to live with those experiences for the rest of their days without their being acknowledged, or with the rest of the country in denial. And forgiveness – restorative justice rather than retributive justice – was encouraged. There are stories of remarkably courageous acts of forgiveness from many people – both black and white.
Having difficulties with people is, of course, inevitable. We are all so different, and human communication and interaction is bound to be complex and problematic at times. So perhaps it is helpful to realize that difficulties are normal; it is how we deal with them that matters. We cannot expect to get on with everybody all the time, but we can try to bring awareness, understanding, and honesty to the problems that crop up.
1) Just a quick email to let you know about what is coming up at our drop in Tuesday evening zoom group. We start promptly at 7.30pm – so get there 5 to 15 minutes before if possible. We have a short break halfway and end the evening at 9.30pm
Beginners and newcomers are very welcome. The first half is focussed on meditation, and full instruction is always given, so it is not a problem if you have never meditated before. In the second half we usually have a talk and/or discussion about some aspect of Buddhism.
03 November Paramajyoti – talking about the history of the movement, and its founder Sangharakshita 10 November Keith 17 November Amber 24 November Padmajata 01 December Nandaketu?? – not yet confirmed 08 December Karunadhara – talking about his work as a Buddhist prison chaplain. Karunadhara is a good friend of mine who lives in Dover. He got ordained about a month ago.
In the third stage we think of a neutral person. Here the practice is presenting us with a particular challenge, that of overcoming indifference. We are being asked to be concerned for someone in whom we have no personal investment. In the second stage we like the person, enjoy their company, and want their friendship. In the fourth stage we are going to be thinking of a difficult person, someone whose company we would rather be without. In each case, a different ‘vested interest’ is at stake. But the neutral person is in-between. We have no particular feelings, or interests, either way.
The neutral person might be someone we see quite often, but we have no real connection with. It might be a man at work whose name we know, but who we’ve never really spoken to, or a woman who runs the local corner shop. So in this stage of the practice we are trying to develop a well-wishing towards such a person. Even though we don’t know them personally, and may never know them, we want our attitude to be one of desiring their happiness.
Sometimes we can find this stage difficult precisely because we don’t have a connection with that person. How can we think about someone if we don’t know anything about them? We can try using our imagination. Although we might not know very much about this person’s life, we can imagine what it might be like. We can do this is a way which seems realistic, a view of what life might possibly entail for them. What would it be like to work in that shop all day long? You hope she enjoys her work, and that the business is doing well. You imagine where she grew up, what her life might have been like. Though she might be neutral to us, to some other people she is far from that. Perhaps she has a family, and we can hope that they, too, are happy and well. When we are in a hurry, people like her can seem to be two-dimensional figures. They are always there behind the counter when we nip in for our pint of milk or bar of chocolate. In this stage of the practice we are trying to see them more as alive, three-dimensional, human beings. We start to see that we are connected to them more than we think. It is only because she works all those hours that we cancel in just when we want to.
exercise – putting ourselves in their shoes
If you are not already doing the full loving-kindness practice, you can now try incorporating this third stage into your meditation. Start building up the practice stage by stage. Spend a few minutes on stages one and two every day, and then move on to stage three. You can do this by bringing to mind someone you see at work, in a shop, or on the bus. Try to imagine being in their shoes. What would it be like to live that life? Fill out as much detail as you can, but obviously there will be aspects of their life you cannot know about. At these times, you can just dwell on the ‘mystery’ of the other person.
It is good to choose one person and keep them in your practice for a week, or even longer. Then you might want to choose someone else for a while.
You can also do this reflection while you are sitting on the bus, or walking down the street, just looking about you and having a sense of curiosity and kindness towards the people you see about you.
A friend of mine once told me the following story. He used to work in a restaurant where there was a man who came in for lunch every day. He was quiet and never said very much, and the staff in the restaurant used to refer to him as Mr Customer. One day my friend started putting Mr Customer in his neutral-person stage. A few days later, when serving this man, without any particular intention, he started chatting to him. (Let us hope he didn’t call him Mr Customer to his face!) This story shows the effect the practice can have. My friend naturally and spontaneously started seeing that man differently. We encounter scores of neutral people every day, and it is worth remembering that, before we knew them, our dearest friends were, to us, just neutral people.
People sometimes make astonishing sacrifices for total strangers. There are many stories of people giving their lives trying to save others in a disaster or emergency – rushing back into a burning building, or diving into freezing cold water. They are only ‘ordinary ‘people, but such stories provide food for thought about our potential for self-transcendence and concern for others. Perhaps you could even say there is only such a thing as ‘society’ to the extent that we can identify with ‘neutral’ people. If we didn’t have any concern for neutral people, society would soon break down.
Also I wanted to mention that one of our friends (Helen Bond) has been trained to teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses. MBSR is an evidence-based approach to help people deal more effectively with stress and anxiety and improve their overall well-being. The course meets for two and half hours, weekly for eight weeks. No prior experience of MBSR or mindfulness is necessary.
It does not include any Buddhism.
She is going to offer two 8-week courses. From mid-October to mid-December 2020. One at a venue in Cheshunt on Saturday mornings and the other at a venue near Hertford on Monday afternoons.
The cost will be about £120 for the 8 week course. If you are interested in attending either of these courses, or would like to know more about the MBSR course please contact Helen at firstname.lastname@example.org
That is all for now. I hope you have a great October.
In the second stage of the loving-kindness meditation, we bring to mind a good friend, someone towards whom it will be relatively easy for us to feel warm and appreciative. In this phase of the practice, we can work to see them more deeply, see what their qualities are – their own, unique sparkle that makes them the person they are. Maybe we can imagine this sparkle, this quality, shining in them more and more brightly. This is what we desire – for them to be at their very best and happiest.
If our friend is currently happy and healthy and life is going well for them, we bring their good fortune and good qualities to mind and try to respond with a sense of gladness and celebration. On the other hand, if we know they are experiencing difficulties and unhappiness, we can bring that to mind, be as fully aware of them and their situation as we can. We can then try to cultivate a response of empathy and well-wishing.
When this practice is taught to people for the first time, it is often recommended that we do not put someone to whom we are sexually attracted in this stage of the practice. It is also recommended not to include someone who has died, or who is a lot older or younger than us. This is so that our feelings of loving-kindness can be developed without confusion with feelings of a sexual or romantic attraction, grief or remorse, or parental or filial feelings. It is not that there is anything wrong with such feelings, but that we are trying to cultivate loving-kindness to someone with whom our relationship is relatively straightforward, so that we can get a clear idea of what the practice entails.
However, it is also important to emphasize that this is only the case when you are new to the practice. Once you have got an idea of how it works, it is good to include all sorts of people. Indeed, we want to be able to respond with loving-kindness to everyone and anyone, including those we are close to and with whom we are enjoying an intimate relationship. People can sometimes get into the habit of not including certain people, and go on not including them when it would be very appropriate to do so.
exercise – celebrating friends
You could start off this phase of the practice with an emphasis on celebrating and appreciating your friend’s good qualities. It might seem obvious what their strengths are, and what you value about them, so that thinking about it doesn’t seem necessary. However, if you allow time for reflection, a deeper appreciation can emerge. You can start to discern what combination of qualities it is that is uniquely theirs. In other words, they become more special, more loved for who they really are.
You can do this by bearing a friend in mind, or seeing them in your mind’s eye. Think of them at different times and in different situations, and with different people. What are they really like?
Do they have distinctive qualities you’ve not fully noticed before? Are there aspects of them, or memories of times spent with them, that you have not thought about for a long time? We can bring all this to mind and allow appreciation to emerge.
It includes a meditation diary, so you can have a different question to explore every day during your meditation for 6 days each week (Wednesday to Monday) for 6 weeks (36 questions). Plus there are some very deep and useful teachings on our two meditation practices that are contained in the notes.
If you use them as guidance before and after you meditate, they will help you go deeper into the practices.
Monday 7th Sep: Helen will be leading an evening around the issue of how we as individuals can be part of a spiritual community which aspires to avoid the perils of conforming to group pressure, and towing the party line etc.
Tuesday 15th Sep: 6 week meditation course starts. Week one led by myself
I’ve recently taught the metta bhavana to groups of carers – people who are caring long-term for a severely ill or disabled family member. They are ordinary people from whom so much energy and self-sacrifice is required on an ongoing basis. They relate very easily to this need for self-empathy, for the time to look at their own emotional resources, in order to be able to go on coping with the daily demands of caring. Sometimes they have to deal with feelings of guilt. If the pressures on them are great, they can understandably start to feel anger towards the person for whom they are caring. On top of this, they feel guilty about feeling anger. Self-empathy can help bring to this a kindness and understanding of one’s humanity and limitations. At other times they can feel equally uneasy about feeling good – why should they feel happy when their near and dear one is in pain? Self-empathy can help them realize that they are human beings that deserve happiness too. Also, if they are able to feel more emotionally buoyant and resilient, this is not selfish because it means they will have the emotional resources carry on helping others.
As well as working with negative feelings towards ourselves, we can also remind ourselves of our positive qualities. We can look at our lives and see that we do act with loving-kindness much of the time, even if it is sometimes mixed with other motives, or even if we don’t always feel hugely positive. But we can give ourselves credit for what is positive.
Extending on from this, we can also use this stage of the practice to strengthen positive qualities, or to develop new ones. I often work by imagining qualities that I would like to develop. I try to envisage what it would be like to have those qualities. For example, if I’ve noticed myself getting irritated in meetings at work, I imagine how it might be possible to make my points in the meeting without the irritation, and with more kindness to others. I sit trying to be open to the possibility. Sometimes this imaginative approach helps me see my potential more clearly. I can sense quite tangibly how I could be different. Then I actually start to feel different.
We might also spend time reflecting on all that is good in our lives, cultivating a sense of gratitude and appreciation (a bit like the reminder of the preciousness of life in Chapter 1). By doing this, we can gain a different perspective on the things we tend to moan about – we realize that they are not that bad. We can feel richer, more expansive, and warmed up – ready for the subsequent stages of the practice.
exercise – imagining new possibilities
You can try the various ideas and approaches suggested above in your meditation practice. It would probably be best to spread them out over a few weeks, rather than trying them all at once. You could take notes as you go, and see if there are some you find more helpful than others.
If you already do the loving-kindness practice, you can incorporate them into that. If not, you could start by spending five minutes on one of the approaches suggested above. For example, after relaxing the body and watching the breath for a while, you could try imagining new possibilities. Bring to mind particular, specific situations in which you have a desire to be different, and recall what you are like in them, how you actually feel in your heart, mind, and body. Allow a sense of how you could be different to emerge, of how you could approach those situations in a new way.
It is free and beginners are welcome. You can just drop into the sessions that you want to, you don’t have to do the whole thing.
If you sign up for the retreat you will be asked what your local centre is. Many of us from Hertford are ticking the Cambridge box for this, and it means we are more likely to see each other in the breakout groups. I hope that you have a lovely August.
Best wishes Keith _________________________________ First stage of metta bhavana People are sometimes surprised that a meditation in which we are learning to love should start with ourselves. But the practice is just acknowledging the psychological truth that we cannot go out to others in an emotionally positive way unless we have positive emotion for ourselves. We first need a sense of our own self-worth and an appreciation of life and its potential. In our culture this seems difficult for some people. An unforgiving self-criticism, or subtle, underlying sense of worthlessness, is surprisingly common.
Most of us talk to ourselves; there is an internal voice providing us with a running commentary on our day. What is the emotional tone of this voice? Are we talking to ourselves in a way in which we wouldn’t dare talk to others? Is the voice harsh, moaning, or over-critical? If so, can we soften the voice, and let it be kinder and more forgiving?
Or is it a voice of self-pity, feeling let down by other people and blaming the world for our misery? Such self-pity is corrosive. Even if we have been let down by others, it is no use wallowing in these feelings. Eventually we need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start again. In order to be able to do this, we need to acknowledge our pain, admit to ourselves that we were hurt, and bring to this hurt sense of kindness.
Perhaps our inner voice isn’t usually so negative, but we notice that it can become so in certain situations. When things don’t go our way, this might trigger a particular way in which we speak to ourselves. It might be worth exploring all this in meditation and in daily life.
This first stage of the meditation may also help us find the emotional resources to deal with stress and difficulty in our lives. If life is currently hard or painful, we can practise ‘self-empathy’. We take the time to listen to ourselves, to hear about what is difficult, with kindness and understanding. We do the same with ourselves as we would with a friend who was suffering – we try just to listen with empathy.