Forest Sangha Newsletter April 2004
Rounding Out the Practice; Ajahn Thiradhammo
Reflections from Retreat; Thanissara

Reflections from Retreat
Excerpts from talks given by Thanissara on retreats at Amaravati in 1997 and 2003

Attention and Listening
I first met Ajahn Chah in 1977. He gave a memorable talk to some students at a meditation centre just outside of Oxford. It was the first time I had heard live Dhamma. There was something very authentic and immediate in his expression, and throughout the talk I kept thinking 'This is amazing; it's so profound.'

When he got to the end of the talk there was a pause, then he said 'If you've been sitting here thinking "This is good" or "This is bad," then you haven't been listening properly.' And I thought 'That's really amazing!'

There is something about the way that we listen, not only to talks, but the way we listen generally. There is a tendency to listen from a particular viewpoint, with preconceived ideas as to what or who we are listening to. This is natural enough. It is the way that our habits have been conditioned, the way we perceive and interpret, perceptions about ourselves, about each other and about the world around us. Maybe there's some truth in the perceptions we have formed, but even if they're 'right' perceptions, 'right' assumptions, they still block the immediacy of our direct experience and a possible new understanding.

So although that may have sounded like an off-hand comment from Ajahn Chah, in fact he was touching on something profound. We've highlighted this way of listening during this retreat, cultivating the ability to be with our experience, without needing to find a conclusion about it, to decide, 'This is good' or 'This isn't good.' Rather we allow for the uncertainty of life; we use meditation to keep listening to 'how it is' without necessarily coming to any fixed conclusion.

Life is actually much more dynamic, mysterious and complex than our conclusions give credit for. To truly listen is a way of honouring that. We can easily fall into creating fixed assumptions, 'She's like that, he's like that, and I'm like this.' This is the tendency we've been contemplating, the proliferation of thought, stimulated by perception and feeling, which generates realities we are then compelled to live within. Of course, sometimes it is necessary to name how it is or how we are. But we should do so very tentatively, touching very lightly, with spaciousness, leaving ourselves room to move. If we develop this quality of listening, it allows for a continual opening and receptivity. It allows us to be adept at living with uncertainty. It's not comfortable, but it gives us a toe-hold on the way life really is.

What blocks us, of course, is ignorance, avijja, which is an ancient shadow that falls across the mind. Because of avijja, we see in distorted ways. We interpret thought and feeling as emerging from a continuous and permanent 'me' that's 'inside' which then needs gratifying and sustaining. When there's a sense of 'me,' there's a sense of 'other,' and a relationship between them. The relationship between them gives rise to the daily dramas of attraction and aversion. The skill of sustained attention challenges the assumptions we make based on the view of 'self', and based on the ways we don't really listen; this allows us to see that in actuality the sense of self and the world around are not quite as reliable as they appear to be. We see that everything is moving and changing in a dynamic flow. Through seeing this we begin to understand the difficulty in actually grasping and owning anything.

It is a rare opportunity to notice the energy of becoming, of wanting to go somewhere, to do something.

Dealing with the Structures of Self
In this way of awakening, a process of purification takes place; a lot is released. Looking through the layers needs patience. We need to allow habitual tendencies the time they need for transformation within the light of attention and listening - the fears, the fear of letting go, the fear of loss, the longing, desire, confusion, and disorientation that emerges. Sometimes we can experience a real heaviness where there is no light and no clarity. With all this we need to be very patient.
We should remember that although meditation is a powerful process, it is also very delicate because of the established structures of self. We can't undo those through an act of will. So we start to apply this medicine of attention and investigation gently, with care. The teachings on non-attachment and transcendence are not there to reinforce immature behavioural patterns, to consolidate our inability to deal with relationships and life. The practice is not one of smashing everything out of the way, or pretending that we don't have an ego with needs, anxieties and longings. Rather, it is important to respect our inner obstructions, and to do this with attention and patience.

In the early days of my own practice I had many confrontations in monastic life. Although I had a very idealistic view of what I should be, I had to face the fact that I experienced huge waves of anger. This was not pretty. The experience of conflict between what I was and what I wanted to be opened my practice into a more challenging and deeper engagement. I needed to sit with these feelings and claim back the blame I tended to project. As I did that I realised that the pain was not just mine, it belonged to the group, and it belonged to the world around me. I found I couldn't smother the pain with beautiful spiritual thoughts or rosy clouds. I had to go through all the layers, to open it up and see its universal aspect. The accepting of anger gradually allowed the pain to melt. I found that dukkha, when approached with wisdom, has the power to transform the heart, to energetically soften and open it up.

On Becoming and Nibbida
One of the challenges of retreats is that we can't really become very much here. We can't become an interesting personality, we can't express ourselves because we are in silence. We can't get absorbed in a role or activity to give us a sense of confidence or purpose. This tends to be a bit bewildering and one feels at a loss; but it is a rare opportunity to notice the energy of becoming, of wanting to go somewhere, to do something. This is something I notice in myself, because my mind is actually very creative. I can sit here, and if there is a problem or something needed, I can create a whole project out of it. I can create several projects in a day and then carry them out as well. When I get exhausted Kittisaro says to me, 'Well, Thanissara, you do too many things,' and I say 'Well, I know.' But in the heat of the moment when a new idea is emerging it is so convincing to me that if I'm not mindful, I readily fall into it. Not long afterwards I will often catch myself thinking 'How did I get into this? How can I get out of it?' So I'm very familiar with this paradigm.

In a retreat one can see several wonderful projects and ideas emerge, and then see them dissolve. It's then a great relief to feel 'Oh, I didn't need to pick that one up, that's good, I can just allow the world to sort itself out. It's great to give myself permission to simply watch. Although it is not necessarily comfortable to sit with this constant sense of becoming without being able to do much about it, it is very important. For me it has enormous value. In investigating this, we may even begin to feel a sense of nibbida, a weariness experience that Ajahn Chah used to point to when he first met people; 'Are you weary? Are you bored? Have you had enough yet?' was usually his first question. He would ask it in such a meaningful way, so that when he said it to me I actually had a flash of having been 3 billion eons in this cycle of samsara and then having someone surface into my field of consciousness and saying 'Have you had enough yet?' He happened to say it at a particularly anguishing moment, so there was considerable receptiveness to the question.

After the Retreat
So as we leave this retreat, we return to the life of becoming and doing. Can we do that with a heart that is rooted in the present moment, in inner listening? Can we move into whatever is next while also letting go of this experience. We might find it a little bumpy, shifting from a controlled, refined environment and getting back onto the M25. It's not something one looks forward to. In leaving, there can be a slight deflation or depression as one moves from one energy field into another, and some resistance. Although sometimes we sit here wanting to leave, when we actually do - that's our madness really - when we do leave, we miss it. We miss what we've been sharing together, the space, the silence, the reflectiveness. But in any moment, if we remember to ask ourselves 'How is it?', we automatically connect with our mindfulness and this skill of inner listening.

The field of everyday life is the test, isn't it? We go back to the phone calls, emails, friends to meet, conflicts to deal with, our work, the families we have and the shopping queues in the supermarket - that's one of my pet hates, where I get really impatient, lining up in the supermarket with my shopping basket. Dealing with finances, relationships, time pressures and all the things that tend to fill up our lives, we can feel an oppressive lack of space. I felt this strongly in my transition to lay life, the lack of space and depth that lay life affords.

In the environments and situations we return to, we can't expect people to respect our wishes for quiet or for moments of silence. We go to families and work places where there are demands, pressures and needs. Of course, meditation practice would be very limited if it could only be practised in retreat. In the activities of daily life all aspects of our being are drawn into awareness, into our contemplation and inner listening.

Meeting the World
It is very natural on retreat, as the mind calms down, to feel well-being as we become more present. It's very natural then to favour the happiness of retreat over the turbulence of activity and contact. This is the meditator's disease, to which I think we are all susceptible. We can feel averse to the things that come and disturb us. This indicates that we haven't got Samma-samadhi, we haven't got a completely unshakeable heart. The heart is still able to be shaken, or even totally uprooted and pulled around. So there is still work to do. If the Path that the Buddha laid out only involved developing calm, then we would probably all have to live in eternal meditation retreat. Although an important aspect of the Path involves putting things down, gathering, and stabilizing the mind, the Path doesn't stop there. This is something that Ajahn Chah often emphasised. He would say 'Peace doesn't really come from calm, peace comes from wisdom.' Wisdom allows us to be with life without being disturbed or overwhelmed. Through wisdom we understand how to meet the world without grasping, and how to adjust our relationship to it in a careful way.

The practice is not about sitting and judging the world as bad, but to see it for what it is. In doing so uncertainty is revealed. Uncertainty is the underlying reality for all of us. If we see and make peace with this, then when we meet the world, we do so not demanding that it be more stable or more under control; rather, we meet it with an increasing trust in our ability to just be with it, without fixed views and aversion, without grasping, but with a reflective, fluid and sensitive enquiry. We can ask ourselves, 'How is it now?' 'How can I be with it?' 'How can I be with life as it is unfolding in its wonderful, disturbing, chaotic dynamic?' 'How can I engage it with the skills and gifts I have? Can I do so without getting overwhelmed or negative, depressed or despairing?'

In engaging the world around us, we can expect to suffer, there's no doubt. If we are sensitive we will feel suffering. But can we learn to suffer without suffering? There's a difference between conscious suffering - which allows us to mature our wisdom and nurture our human roots of compassion - and blind suffering which takes us into constriction and pain. So for me practice in daily life, with its feeling tone of uncertainty, its lack of structure and support, involves finding balance in the heart. But finding balance isn't one movement. There isn't one formula, or one secret that we can apply, like a computer disk that we can put in. It is a constant adjustment. It takes a lot of vigilance, a lot of mindfulness.

Finding One's Place in the World
One thing I have found helpful in my life has been the opportunity to serve. I have found it has given me a sense of placement and belonging. But service to me doesn't mean becoming a doormat. Compassion doesn't mean allowing people to run over you - as Kittisaro and I have learned in South Africa, a country with some rough edges. We have definitely had to cultivate the ability to say 'No.' For instance, we have established a hermitage there which may in future become a monastery. Soon after we arrived, the neighbour trebled his water supply while we were away, drawing it from our weir, without informing us. When we came back, his workers were out there busily covering over a 500 metre pipe he had put across our land. We didn't know what to do about it. We thought, 'Well it's everyone's land, and we should all share everything.' But actually this neighbour was taking advantage of us. He hadn't negotiated, he hadn't discussed anything. Then one night Kittisaro suddenly woke with a big 'NO' welling up inside him. He went to see the neighbour the next day who said, 'You're angry. You are a Buddhist, so you shouldn't be angry.' And Kittisaro said, 'Yes, correct, I'm angry. And what's more, I want you to take this pipe out!' It nearly went to court, but the neighbour conceded and removed the pipe. This was a lesson in saying 'No,' in protecting what we wanted to protect which in this case was the hermitage.

If we feel we always have to say 'Yes,' we will find ourselves getting resentful and overwhelmed and be incapable of taking care of our own needs. This is one of the lessons I have learned in my own practice of service. Those of us who try this, will find that meditation isn't merely a practice of pushing the world away, and that we can embrace the world in a more forgiving and kindly way. We can be less aloof and averse towards it, and more realistic about its nature.

Cultivating Space
Monastics and laypeople often ask me, 'What's it like on the other side?' (depending on which side they are on). I think that lay life is more complex; the depth of presence and spaciousness that one feels within the contained monastic environment is not so obvious. In lay life there is so much crammed into our space; and if we feel that there is no space, we can feel overwhelmed, and then we stop listening. So it is important to give a priority to creating space, like coming on a retreat. But if we don't have the opportunity to find such physical space, we must learn to find inner space.

At first, finding space can feel scary, to let go of the sense of continuity that busyness brings. We want space, but then we avoid it. When it presents itself, we switch on the TV or pick up a magazine. So finding space has to be a conscious cultivation. It is something that we can encourage in ourselves, with friendliness. We can allow ourselves space - even just a little more - both inwardly and outwardly. It is the space that we give ourselves that allows life to be manageable, creative and joyful, and allows for some kind of resolution or new perspective. So I think this is a skill we can develop in lay life, this conscious noticing of space, and cultivating it. To allow space, we have to just listen; we listen to the clutter.

We cannot make space by trying to push everything out. If we do sitting practice at home after a busy day, we might notice how full we are, and then we might struggle with that. But we only need to give it time to settle, to just listen, just listen to all the turbulence, listen with patience, and not rush in there in a forceful way. We gently hear the voices of the day, the concerns, the pains of the heart, the plans for the future.

When we pause, we rediscover what we take with us wherever we are, this innate gift of the heart, the gift of space, the gift of silence, the gift of listening, the gift of emptiness and non-ownership.