Part IV: In which popular-culture references begin to spiral out of control.
The Force Awakens
31st December 2002, Chris and I had been through the worst of it, and were rediscovering eating and sleeping. Although we were still quite ragged in many ways, our health and moods were noticeably improving. We were positively friendly towards Reiner by now, and the three of us were getting into the swing of life in the detox, with the daily meditations definitely being a highlight (albeit not exactly a thrill). Phra Hans swung by as usual, but this time he suggested moving our meditation to the evening, and perhaps making it a bit special. I figured he was well aware that otherwise our minds might turn wistfully towards whatever else we might be doing if we hadn’t chosen to spend New Year’s Eve in a detox, which wouldn’t be helpful.
Evening arrived, and then distant sounds of celebrations from the nearby village, and finally Phra Hans. He had arranged to take us out to one of the many caves around the monastery, where the original community of monks who founded Thamkrabok lived and practised before there were any buildings here. The setting helped to create a sense of occasion, I suppose, but Hans’ really special treat though, was how long we were going to do it for. He didn’t announce what the timing would be, just that it would be longer than it would take for an incense stick to burn out (so no point in peeking), and that he would ting a little bell when it was over.
In the short meditations we had done up to that point, after the initial mental flurry had faded somewhat, I would typically get around 15 minutes of fairly peaceful interlude. Just as I would start to feel a bit fidgety again, we would be coming near to the end, and I would often get through the last few minutes with slightly gritted teeth. So I prepared to step up and get a little hardcore, and by Golly I was going to do this, perhaps assisted by a little testosterone-driven competitive spirit between our mismatched trio. I saw that Hans was lighting the longer sticks, so I figured he’d go for what? 45 minutes? That would be nearly double what we were used to, and would certainly drive me into the grit zone. An hour? Bring it. I was ready.
Two. hours. That’s how long it was before Phra Hans Olo did his little ting. And I made it, all three of us did. But this isn’t a story about how tough I am (I have other stories for that – another time, perhaps).
It is about the truly extraordinary thing that Phra Hans graciously showed us, which retrospectively helped some of this other stuff I have been talking about to fall into place, and awakened a burning curiosity in me to learn and experience more. It’s probably also the beginning of what religious types (so I hear) call “Faith”.
That little meditation we had been doing, timed by burning a 20-something minute incense stick, is great in its own terms, certainly worth doing, and will bring some tranquility into your life. For an experienced meditator who is familiar with the concentrated state and can get there quickly and quite deeply, it could be considerably more productive than that. For the average Joe, or Peter, or Reiner – yes, it is still basically ordinary concentration, broadly similar to what you might experience practising scales on the piano. Or perhaps whittling.
The duration is significant. It is about how long an averagely stressed and chaotic adult mind will naturally remain unbroken with an object that it finds interesting and/or rewarding. An episode of The Simpsons, for instance – it is no co-incidence that TV networks often work to this kind of timing, since distraction and restlessness tend to become much bigger issues beyond this point. Of course we can concentrate for longer than that – we can watch a three-hour movie straight through – but only if it gives us lots more varied stimuli: Subplots and twists, and minor character story-arcs, all of that good stuff. Or failing these – explosions and aliens.
What if we don’t have aliens dropping in? If we don’t in fact have anything except an object that isn’t inherently very exciting, and (on the face of it) zero variety of stimuli – what happens then?
The Temper Empire Strikes Back
The first part of the meditation was, as usual, a natural settling down into a calmer state, and then some focus establishing itself on the breath, pulling that a little deeper, making the outside sounds a little more distant, and the urge to scratch my nose a bit less urgent. All good so far.
And then this more tranquil state began to be less interested in stray thoughts, which in turn got a bit less frequent, and I began to feel a bit happier about just being here and doing this. And that went on for a while. And it was nice.
And then, as usual, all of this started to roll back in reverse order, only now, it wasn’t just about scratching an itch, since a little discomfort was starting to appear in my legs, and then there were half a dozen itches that needed scratching, and now my lower back was unhappy too. So I just let my body parts complain at me, and distracted myself with thoughts of the nice things I might reward myself with when this was over; such as stretch my legs out, smoke a cigarette, perhaps a warm beverage later, reading a bit more of my book (The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman – quick gratuitous plug, because it’s awesome). Basically a combination of toughing out and daydreaming away, the last few minutes before the bell – a familiar strategy from school days (with some of my teachers, I hasten to add, just in case any of them should chance to read this).
I was shortly to begin discovering how subjective and contingent physical hardship is. The pain was probably relatively mild, but my inner brat quickly started making a huge fuss about it. He had behaved himself for as long as he thought reasonable and was now tugging at my sleeve demanding to play Angry Birds on my phone, and threatening a tantrum if I didn’t capitulate. And on top of the original grievance, he was now getting increasingly cross about being ignored. So now it was getting personal – “It’s not FAIR!!!”
It began to dawn on me that Phra Hans might not be mere seconds away from that precious little ting that would end this – how long was he planning to keep this going? “You smug, glib, bastard!!” I thought, “You’ve been doing this for years, and you’re all wise and stuff, so it’s easy for you. Don’t you know that we’re vulnerable, fragile people?”
Even more personal now, since we have a perpetrator as well as a victim. This is beyond misfortune now, it’s injustice, dammit! Righteous indignation is of course a far less uncool emotion to wallow in than pure self-pity, so I leapt onto this. Okay, good – I could run further with the self-pity now, and with less danger of perceiving myself as pathetic. My mind briefly enjoyed discharging some bile at Hans, which gained me another few minutes – still hoping for that bell to end it, rather than me having to find some solution to the dual problem that: 1) I wasn’t feeling very comfortable, and 2) I appeared to be a dreadful little turd.
“He hath loosed the fateful lightning…” – Julia Ward Howe
But I was soon back to approaching breaking point. I wasn’t going to be the first to crack though, and I could hear a bit of restlessness going on from the others, a few held breaths and tiny fidgets. “Crack, you bastards, crack! So that I can, but not be first! Chris, you snivelling weakling, how dare you be tougher than me? Reiner, you smug, pampered moron!” Yeah – charming stuff. Blaming Hans had gone so well that we might as well broaden that out to everyone present who isn’t me – okay, not bad. Now let’s mix in a dash of contempt, to balance any uncomfortable notions that others might be more substantial than me… mmm…nice – these grapes of wrath have a complex flavour structure now, let’s try for some richness and body:
So then there was despising myself for believing that this mystical claptrap could be the answer to anything, quickly shifting to hating Thamkrabok for peddling their phoney hippy-dippy psychobabble, Mike Sarson for palming me off on them, thereby copping out on HIS responsibility to help ME, and by extension that of the British National Health Service, and so thence to the government, the taxpayers, and so the entire British nation. Yeah! Now, this is looking like a potentially classic vintage. The British nation, both present and stretching back into pre-history, had of course collectively created a society so stultifying that a smart, creative person such as me could only stand to live in it if I was totally spannered half the time… and had then shirked its clear responsibility to ME – yes ME – to provide suitable help free-of-charge, which was why NOW I had to be in some little loser country halfway around the world, and AT MY OWN EXPENSE! Doing this pointless, painful, witchdoctor claptrap!
Ooh yeah, baby! This is getting primo – proper Grand Cru, Gold medal, stuff. A soupçon of of racism really brings out those astringent tannins. Save for special occasions and serve paired with an unusually fine Roquefort [tastefully garnished with fresh walnuts, and sharp green muscat grapes]. Now let’s lay that down in the cellar for a while longer to mature…
My ugly thoughts melted into one wordless (silent) snarl of rage, with no particular object. It was too much effort justifying all of this nastiness, so I no longer bothered really hating anyone, I just hated. For a brief moment of clarity, this seemed pretty stupid, so I tried to stop snarling, but then all the pain came back, and stronger than before. I couldn’t take much more of this, but I could stand a little longer – one more breath. And one more. I’ll go for ten more breaths and then maybe bail. Ten more, and then verbalised thinking stopped, and I was just getting through one moment at a time. Still, I suppose, clinging to the hope that I was seconds from the bell, I thought I might as well make a token effort at doing what I had been instructed to do, and put my attention onto what was happening, rather than everything that was pissing me off about it.
This is where my brat metaphor and real life begin to part ways, because I wish actual children were this consistently manageable, but when these metaphorical ones see that you’re not responding, first they’ll try shouting louder of course, but then, if you stick to your guns – undreamed of miracle – they just shut up. They give up. They might make a few more grumbly little noises, but stay firm for just a little longer, and they’ll even stop those. In fact, they’ll put their pyjamas on, and brush their teeth, and they will put themselves to bed.
What had happened, was that the painful sensations were still there, but somehow no longer seemed like my personal tragedy. Because of that I could get back to staying on the breath, and with much the same rather nonchalant mood as before. It didn’t feel like some higher altered state, but I felt as though I could keep this up indefinitely. I could still feel pain in my legs, but it was something like hearing a car alarm go off in the street. At first you freak out because it might be your car, and then you realise it isn’t, so it goes down to a much lower priority of annoyance.
Stranger still was that in some sense the feelings of boredom, peevishness, spite, and self-pity, hadn’t exactly just gone away, either. Now they were a bit like – well, have you ever seen a child get very upset over something they’ve misunderstood? For example, “We have to go home in an hour” but they burst out crying after the word “home…” and then you clear up the misunderstanding, but they still carry on being upset? Or rather, doing upset. It becomes apparent that upsetness is a force unto itself, but also that there’s an element of choice. And it looks ridiculous, even amusing. And, as with a whining outer child – once you get them to laugh, you’ve got them. There is no going back to pretending that their sense of grievance is an epoch-defining injustice.
So that’s pretty cool, but it gets better. This wasn’t just a matter of finding a few more resources and a more cheerful attitude and being able to keep going a bit longer. All of this happened well inside the first hour. There was another one to go, and in that time the physical discomfort really did become quite gruelling by any objective measure. The sense of ease and detachment remained steady.
My understanding of the meaning of concentration turned upside down. It wasn’t a stone I had to keep grinding away on, it could be more like a comfortable armchair which I could remain on, simply by continuing to watch this simple, ever-present thing – my breath. I could still see the hard ground, covered in broken bottles and used syringes, but why would I step down onto that?
All three of us, very different people, reported a similar experience. Each of us admitted to being (slightly histrionically) at the very edge of what we thought was our endurance, and poised to quit the instant there was a hint that someone else would. And then just crashing through that wall, and then feeling calm, and invincible. This state is completely available, simply by returning to the object of concentration even as you feel the greatest pull away from it. How’s that for a Jedi mind-trick?
“His truth goes marching ohhhh-honnn!”
What makes this possible though, is Sajja – integrity. Being true to your word, and your intention (okay – helped in this case by a little competitive machismo). Only if you are resolved to sit through whatever comes, might whatever assails you give up. Why would it, if it senses weakness? And it doesn’t need psychic powers to sense that – after all, “it” is “you”. There’s one to ponder…
But anyways – if you keep just doing those short meditations, going a little way into the rough zone and always retiring feeling like you’re at the end of your tether, when ordinary concentration has done all that it can do; then you’ll never see what comes next. And you’ll never see how you ever could, because you will imagine that it just keeps on getting worse, but it doesn’t. I actually don’t think it can – there is a magical power released by walking through walls. When you “know” that you can’t, but you do, and you can, well obviously you will find yourself in an unknown land, with unsuspected paths leading on to further places, that wouldn’t be visible, or even imaginable from where you started.
And once you know it is there, going there again gets easier – it isn’t strictly necessary to generate such a raging climax of misery before you learn to let go of it. But by golly that will transport you there, if you’re ever finding “the zone” hard to access. People in the early stages of learning meditation often have the wrong reaction to difficulties, they’ll say “my concentration is all over the place at the moment, so I’m just doing short sits until that improves, then I’ll get properly stuck into it..” or somesuch. That generally leads to ever-diminishing returns, and eventually giving up.
My advice would be to go the other way – when it’s hard, do more. Set your determination, so that there’s no internal debate about whether you’re going to stick it out or not, and then invite the ordeal. Which will be surprisingly short-lived when it runs up against a solid wall of sajja, and that will flick the switch for you. This trick has never let me down since I first learned of it on New Year’s Eve, 2002. Thankyou, Phra Hans.
So, okay – just to have a brief, cynical Gollum-moment – so, we can get ourselves into a weird state where we think that everything is okay while that lasts. What does that have to do with real life?
Well – may I call you “Sméagol?” – Whatever you are doing, or think you are doing, there is a constant flow of other things arising in consciousness. Things intrude from the outside – your neighbour starts playing his radio and you either like or dislike the song, or maybe you just dislike it on principle because you dislike the neighbour. If life were a dating app, then there is a constant swipe-left/swipe-right process busily sorting out all of these things that arise. There is a third process as well, which in the radio analogy is when you neither like nor dislike the song particularly, but somehow it gets stuck in your consciousness, perhaps with some snatch of lyrics that keeps replaying after the song has finished. In the smartphone analogy this is when your finger hovers over the touchscreen and you don’t know why you are still staring at some stupid thing that you don’t care about, or perhaps even clicking further links to more things you don’t care about.
By the way, for clarity: “outside” means outside your consciousness. So this includes sensations in your own body.
But are these really just reactions to outer things? When you can calm the mind enough to be less interested in what is outside, you may start to see that these forces seem to still be around, arising from within and looking for objects to latch onto. Anger (for instance) may seem to arise in relation to a particular trigger, but then move to another object quite seamlessly – like it has a life of its own. That can be initially terrifying, because then they seem far less rational, more like demons. But when you have seen that, perhaps you can see you don’t have to latch onto them. And then maybe you don’t have to be controlled by them. Perhaps we could make them start to shrink down, so they’re less like demons, perhaps more like…
These are what Buddha called “Lobha, Dhosa, and Moha” – greed, hatred, and delusion; Left, right, and rabbit-hole. According to him, these are what you spend most of your time and energy on, whenever you’re not mindfully doing something else, or in a state of concentration. These are your charming brood – one is demanding ice cream, another is wailing for your urgent intervention in some trivial schoolyard injustice, and the third just prattles endlessly about Pokémon cards. Lovely, aren’t they? You must be sooooooooo proud.
With the kind of meditation described above, which is called “Samatha”, we discover a way to put the kids to bed, to recover some sanity and stability, and not have every moment be dominated by their petulant demands. That is wonderful, but you can’t just keep making children go away, or while you’re enjoying your “me time” they’ll soon be setting fire to things and torturing the cat, and then they’ll grow up to be serial killers. We also need to hang out with them, and help them to grow up, and (hopefully) eventually to move out, and that is also something that can be done in meditation. But what we are really going to need next, to start making sense of all this, somewhat mystical, experience – is a little bit of (real, not rubbish) philosophy.
In fond and respectful memory of Phra Hans Ulrich Kaempfer