Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1996

Don't Get Off The Train; Ajahn Thanavaro
Vision and Focus; Sister Thanasanti
Saving Forests; Nick Scott interviews Ajahn Pasanno
The Retreat of Light; Reflections from California
Sutta Class: Morals & Ethics; Ajahn Thiradhammo
The Open Road; Sister Candasiri
Signs of Change:


Vision and Focus

Sister Thanasanti reflects on the joys and sorrows of practice in the sometimes challenging environment of Amaravati.

One of the functions of a healthy Sangha is that it has the ability to assess its needs and limitations and bring in specialized people when there is need. This is intelligence functioning. So in a place like Amaravati with a library, publications department, office, workshop and retreat centre; and building projects that are going up almost as fast as other buildings are falling down; in terms of one's practice, where does one begin? How does one integrate the huge amount of work, organisation and communication this situation requires into our daily practice?

When I came to Amaravati at the beginning of this vassa, I was asked if I wanted to do the workshop chore. And figuring it would be a challenge as well as something lovely to offer the community; I accepted. A few days after arriving, I was taken around the workshop and shown what needed to be done. It took two hours to tell me the things that were required as a part of my responsibility; general workshop tidiness, ordering supplies, maintenance of the machines, wood racks, glass, paint, electrical and plumbing department. At the end of this transmission, I was told it would probably take six months to a year to feel comfortable with it. I remember feeling overwhelmed with information and thinking that if it only took a year to familiarise myself and feel comfortable with it all, I'd be doing great. So with all of these responsibilities, and lack of knowledge where does one begin?

One of the blessings of living in a monastery is that you get to live through your worst nightmares.

It seems that the key to the practice is maintaining vision and focus. Vision keeps an overview of what one is doing and the greater context in mind. Focus is concerned with the specific task at hand. The whole thing is too big to focus on at once but I can start with one simple thing, the floors. I like sweeping the floors. I know how to do it. I don't feel anxious about it. I find it relaxing. And most days, people haven't taken away the dust pan and broom so it is actually possible to do. When I'm sweeping the floor, I enjoy it. I relax into the movement, feel my body and breath and focus on the bit of floor I'm sweeping. But I keep the whole floor in mind. So the vision is the whole floor and the focus is the little bit I'm working on.

Now, people who have been using the workshop recently have been very good about sweeping up at the end of the day. So I come in in the morning and the floor is swept. But there are all the other things to do as well; I pick one and focus on it for a few days. So the overview or vision is the whole workshop and the focus is the individual task that is at hand.

In fact, most of the workshop chore I don't know; there is maybe 10-15% that I feel comfortable with. So when the floor is swept, there is an anxiety in the heart - what next? Don't know. Will I make a mess? Will I have the strength? Will I throw out something valuable? So the heart trembles slightly. And I can see even in the simple act of doing a chore, how easy it is to stay in one's comfort zones - to just keep sweeping the floor. In this case, the responsibility supports the practice by edging one out of comfort zones and into things that bring up fear, uncertainty or anxiety.

This then is a good chance to see how worldly confidence and spiritual confidence work and relate to each other. Worldly confidence is having the knowledge, experience and the answers for a particular situation. So, when I'm tidying up the paint store, worldly confidence would have the relevant information; what's good, not good, needs throwing away, belongs in a different place etc. But I go into the paint store and can feel my heart trembling. I don't know what is what. Or maybe I know just 10% of the materials and how they should be sorted and used - and this makes me feel anxious. This is where spiritual confidence supports. Spiritual confidence is the ability to rest in pure awareness, to know what one is feeling, to trust that which is unborn, uncreated and undefined. This trust makes it possible to relax through the anxiety, keep breathing and move slowly trusting one's intuition and the few threads of information that one has.

This also applies in meditation. 'Worldly' refers to the tricks and remedies one applies to certain mind states in order to bring about balance - contemplating metta when angry, death or decay when there is attachment etc. The familiarity with one's habit patterns and mind states, and skilful responses brings about a certain confidence in knowing how to deal with each experience. But spiritual confidence, in this case, comes from resting in bare awareness of the actual experience without asking it to change. It is a trust and relaxation into the Refuges.

I remember one of the first retreats I was on, where the teacher liked to poke fun at himself and all other meditation teachers, to help keep people's projections and adoration in balance. I remember him saying that meditation teachers were completely useless, the only thing they could do was teach meditation. I remember listening then and saying to myself, "I never want to be like that! I always want to be useful." As it happens, I have wonderful parents and as a child I remember very clearly their encouragement. They told me from the time I was tiny that I could do whatever it was that I wanted. If I put my mind to things, I would be able to accomplish my goals.

Sister Siripanya exercising a little vision and focus.
I got the same affirmation and acknowledgement when I went through school and university from my friends and teachers. It was a joy to learn swimming, chemistry, physics and be able to teach them. I studied acupressure massage and enjoyed rock climbing, and going on long bicycle rides. As far as conditioning and opportunity goes, it was about as good as anyone could have. And still, underneath the gifts, talents, abilities and strengths was a huge cavern of anxiety and fear. The fear of being useless. So for each of us we have to examine what it is that drives us to do things. Yes, we may have gifts and skills but what is underneath that? This is our work here. To know these caverns and black holes, and not be driven by them.

One of the blessings of living in a monastery is that you get to live through your worst nightmares. Another blessing of living in a monastery is that every single characteristic that drives you nuts or that you can't stand in everyone else is something you must experience in yourself.

When I first came to this monastery several years ago, I couldn't understand what I observed. I thought to myself: "What's wrong with these people? They can't cope. They can't do things or get anything done." Often they burst into tears or burst into giggles, often they seem to be fainting or feeling weak. And if you ask anyone to do something, they shrink in fear and say, "I can't." Then I had my turn. I got sick, my body was very weak, my brains were scrambled and I couldn't think straight, and this went on for months. I remember the work nun coming to me once and asking if I could sweep the floor. I looked blankly at her, and didn't say anything but went back into my room and burst into tears. Not only could I not cope with sweeping the floor, my brains were so scrambled I couldn't even explain that I wasn't feeling well.

But these opportunities, even though they are ones you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, are invaluable for the practice. What is it then that doesn't change, that is reliable? What is refuge and trust all about? What does meditation mean when your body is sick and your brains are scrambled? This is the work we are doing here; understanding the fears, black holes and crevasses, opening up to them and finding a way through. This is done in the same way that one does a chore. Trust makes it possible to relax through the anxiety, keep awareness open and move slowly being guided by one's intuition and the few threads of information one has.

One of the gifts of a community is that we help each other to remember. If we are successful or gifted, this is what we experience, rather than who we are or why we are here. If we can build and design great things, fix stuff, know about the workshop, the kitchen or the office, this is what we experience - not who we are or why we are here. Or if we are going through a rough patch, sick or feeling depressed or hating ourselves, this again is what we are experiencing - not who we are. But if we forget, then the Sangha helps us to remember. A healthy Sangha upholds the vision of mindfulness and pure awareness, and the individual is able to use it to respond to anything they experience.

One of the problems with vision and focus is that they can get out of balance. When there is too much vision, then you get stuck in ideas. There are the floors and windows that are rotting, the electrical work, the roofs, the gardens, the stores, the tools - not to mention the Sutta and Vinaya classes, teaching engagements etc. And the mind gets so stuck in everything that needs attending to, it becomes worn out just from thinking about it; there's no energy left to do anything. On the other hand when there is too much focus, the mind gets obsessed with the particular task at hand, like repairing something or building something, and the whole world becomes separated into that which helps me do my job and that which obstructs me. So if someone interrupts by asking a question, it's easy to snap or to dismiss them because; - they're interfering with my work. - People are growled at, pujas get missed, sometimes people can't even make it to the meal because they're too busy getting their work done. But one thing is for sure, the work is never done; there are always more things that need attending to.

So the challenge is to work in a way that keeps the vision alive, maintains the aspiration as well as the buildings, and strengthens faith and confidence in the practice. When we keep the vision alive, our hearts rest in the purity of pure awareness. There, one finds joy, peace and easefulness of heart. This is the real work we are doing here.