|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 2001|
The Natural History of the Mind
I studied botany and ecology at university (I even have a doctorate) and I worked for over ten years in nature conservation, but I have never really been a good naturalist. I become too caught up in the things I am trying to achieve to take real delight in the nature around me - but I have known good naturalists. They were not the hunters of rarities who would come to the nature reserves, looking for something new to tick off on a list of what they had seen - the good naturalists would instead spot all manner of minor things, things that I had often missed: a plant that had just come into flower; the way a particular beetle was associated with one side of a tree; or some new behaviour of nesting birds - and they would only tell you if you bothered to ask. That is another characteristic they have - they are not interested in achieving any kind of status from their study. My assistant at the nature reserves had every bird's breeding territory worked out; he'd do this before work, by coming in at dawn. Another good friend is a delight to go for a walk with, because she notices all the small and insignificant members of the plant kingdom - but she never forces her observations on anyone, even when in a party of fellow botanists.
The only time I become a good naturalist is if you give me nothing else to do - like when I'm on a meditation retreat.
|The only time I become a good naturalist is if you give me nothing else to do - like when I'm on a meditation retreat. Then my need to get things done slowly falls away, and I begin to take an interest in the things around me for their own sake. Recently I had an opportunity to retreat in a kuti in the forest at Chithurst Monastery. Initially, my mind was full of thoughts about my life and responsibilities. As that subsided, I then began to notice problems with the kuti. Once I had attended to a few of those jobs, I realised that, 'No, that was not why I was there', and so was left with nothing else but to really take notice of the things around me. I found again that sense of interested enquiry that good naturalists have; actually it is innate, we all have it, it is just that for most of us it is covered up with personal concerns.|
I became interested in where each bird had its nest, the behaviour of the mouse which lived in my wood pile, the unfurling of new leaves on each of the plants; I also observed things I had never noticed before. Around the kuti there were old rotting tree trunks, nearly submerged in mosses and lichens, scattered amidst the growing sweet chestnut coppice. I had seen them, but never really taken them in, or noticed how many there were. Then I remembered that old Dave Bridger who used to cut our chestnut had told me that this part of Hammer Wood had once been an oak wood, but was burnt down and replanted with chestnut and, yes - when I looked closely at the stumps, there were bits of blackened bark on them. They had obviously been burnt and then cut down. Why had I never noticed that before? Then I started to ponder the moon. Does it turn in relation to us, so that one part is always light? Or is it relatively stationary, with the light from the sun moving around it? I had to watch it for several nights to find out. I even got fascinated with supermarket bar codes on the various packets and old jars! Why were there apparently several codes for the same number, was there a system to it? I puzzled over that one for days, staring intently at bottles and cartons after each meal, until I finally got it cracked.
|I admire good meditators in the same way as I admire good naturalists. I have been trying to meditate for a long time now, but I have never been a natural at it. I really admire people like the abbot of this monastery, Ajahn Sucitto; he takes every opportunity to practise. I see him walking up and down his meditation path after the meal, when the rest of us are taking a nap, and the small light in his bedroom illuminating his shrine is always on as I retire to bed. When we were walking together in India, he got so absorbed in a mantra he was reciting internally that he didn't notice someone calling out to invite us for tea; and if there is one thing in the mundane world that Ajahn Sucitto is interested in, it is tea! I am also struck by the way he really enquires into the mind. He wants to know what things are and why certain things happen; he'll read the scriptures, and then review the lists of this or that while in meditation, looking for them in his own mind - and he has that courageous quality of being willing to try something out, just to see what happens. Ajahn Sumedho does that too. One winter retreat both of them, independently, decided to try rushing straight outside and rolling in the snow as soon as their alarm went off in the early morning - just to see what happened in the mind. Another time, Ajahn Sumedho asked the dentist to fill his teeth without an injection so he could watch the mind react to the pain! Not that he's the slightest bit masochistic, he enjoys sensual pleasures just as much as I do - but I have to work up courage just to get myself to the dentist at all!|
|The only time I get any good at meditation is when everything else is taken away. On a retreat, once things have settled down and once I have given up being distracted by this or that, finally I am interested in the mind. I start to apply the investigative enquiry of good naturalists - to the creatures of the mind: What is that drive? Where does this impulse come from? What is that repetitive thought really about? I even get interested in things like: What is making me want to meditate? This investigative enquiry is a natural function that we, as a species, have evolved as our particular adaptation to this world; the other apes can do it, but nowhere near as well. We humans have been so successful at it that we have been able to colonise every terrestrial habitat on the planet. We can also turn this enquiry inwards, looking at our own minds. It is the same process, the only difference is that it is self corrective - there is a positive feedback cycle. Through enquiring into our own minds we come to understand why we do things and why we are the way we are. When we see the processes that are self harming, we want to stop doing them. This results in a calmer, more balanced mind that is more inclined towards and more skillful at enquiring into itself.|
So investigative enquiry is a process I have grown to trust. When watching just for its own sake I observe the way that I come to notice, say, a worm on my walking path - just from the slightest difference in colour - then the recognition of what it is, before the response: stopping to pick it up. I come to see the desire to achieve something, anything, and that in the mind that wants to identify with any achievement; I see the discontent which results from identifying until, with a little shudder of resignation, I let it go.
That, to me, is the ultimate point of meditation, rather than sitting there completely concentrated on something (even when we can at last do it, and even though it can be very pleasant) - it is not calm and peace which I am now aiming for, but freedom. And freedom comes from enquiring into the mind. This is an innate ability, even for someone like me - I just have to create the right conditions. It is just like becoming interested in supermarket bar codes: I bet if I put a lot of the people who have read this into a meditation kuti for a month, even if they have not the slightest interest in puzzles, they would still look at the bar codes and wonder: 'Now, which number goes with which code?' - now that I've mentioned it, that is. And I must apologise for that!