Q. I think I have a new question for your website: Through daily practice and just coming back to awareness of whatever's going on, I've become aware of that space you sometimes speak about, that space brought about by the spark of awareness that allows us to act rather than simply react and spin the wheel again. But I've noticed that that space isn't anything like how I expected it, I mean I've experienced it many times before, but almost sub-consciously, I didn't know what it was and I didn't pay it much attention; it was just a pause in between the daydream and the sense of purpose. But since I've been paying more attention to it, getting curious about it and trying to get familiar with that moment of anticipation and awareness, I've begun to notice that I don't experience it as simply a neutral pause but as a moment permeated with fear. So now when I'm in some comfortable daydream, fantasising about past or future, no matter how wholesome or unwholesome it may be, I find it understandably challenging to bring myself out of a nice seemingly harmless mental drift, past a brief moment of fear and doubt and back to the reality of a cold and wet morning through which I have to walk to attend a long day of hard work. I guess this is where faith is needed, and it doesn't feel like a meaningless moment, it feels like a crucial turning point, a clear opportunity to be patient and stop spinning. So I guess my question is how do I find the middle way at that point, not to be too forceful and try and suppress my wandering mind, and not to be too lazy and let run it away with me? And also at what point does it become clear that this uncomfortable and often painful process of opening up to and sitting with all this dukkha I cause myself, is actually worthwhile and the best course of action?
A. Yes, there will be fear as part of the experience because you are no longer trying to control the experience in the way that you used to. Polishing awareness will encourage you to create that pause, and in the space you bring the experience, and you bring your habitual reaction. Contain all of this in a spirit of openness, and with the aid of the positive precepts continue to function in a normal and skilful way. This is the middle way. You are neither suppressing nor being carried away by the event. Finding this middle way (entering pure awareness practice) comes through familiarity. To come back time after time to that precious space of neither doing nor not-doing is the middle way. By practising in this way you will inevitably experience dukkha as fear, because you are not in the familiar reactive state that reinforces the self. And you will experience dukkha because that wheel of becoming and the world that it creates is going into change, and to change the course of your karma inevitably brings negative forces within you to the surface. To me, this is the most profound act anyone can engage with because eventually it will take you beyond suffering and becoming. In my view that makes all the dukkha experienced worthwhile, especially since you will experience dukkha anyway, even if you have no practice at all. The point at which you realise this for yourself will be a part of your voyage of discovery on this wonderful path.
Q . I have been trying to bring my awareness into my body more throughout the day. This has been the most challenging while at work. I currently work as a social worker, my job involves quite a bit of writing, listening, talking and analysing. The practice of mindfulness is usually talked about more in relation to sweeping floors or washing dishes. I have found it extremely difficult to stay in my body during these kinds of activities, which seem to take place more in my head. I can sometimes manage it, but it does seem to detract from what I am doing. For example while listening to someone speak, I realise I haven't really understood what they have said because I have been more focused on my internal experience. Is it actually possible to stay in the body in these kinds of activities and still do them effectively? Or does a deep practice of mindfulness require that we refrain from doing work that is dominated by these activities?
A. To return our attention to the body is a skilful way of gathering the distracting mind through the loss of awareness during our daily (and meditation) life, so that we return ourselves to the wholeness of an integrated mind and body. From this place of being centred we are not then meant to keep our attention there, but rather allow our clean unsullied (pure) awareness to 'fill out' into whatever is in front of us and the general environment. This fulfils both awareness and mindfulness. We are mindful of our direct experience (and deal with it accordingly) while also being aware of our surrounding environment. This way the whole of ourselves is brought to life rather than just the mental, as can be the case if we are only interested in developing focused one-pointed mindfulness.
Q . Do you think the inherited Buddhist teacher/pupil model needs rethinking as more western teachers emerge, or do you think we have misunderstood this relationship? Do we need to re -vision our ideas of teachers to prevent unhelpful expectations and projections occurring, or is this inevitable?
A. I don't know exactly what you mean when you say we may have misunderstood the teacher/student relationship. I can only give my view of what must surely be the most important feature to anyone that aspires to a deep and meaningful practice of the path. We are encouraged to reflect on the Arya Sangha. Those historical beings, who we draw inspiration and guidance from, all had teachers. Even the Buddha himself had teachers. The many Buddhist traditions have their own interpretations of the Dharma, and schools within traditions still further interpretations. Yet there is at least one teaching they all agree upon, and that is a newly-initiated Buddhist practitioner not only has a teacher, but they should be together for at least 5 years. How can modern serious devotees of the Way ever doubt this essential fact for correct practice? How can anyone seriously believe that it is possible to somehow grow into the depths of insight without a teacher? In my view only the conceit of the western mind could think there may be another way for deep meaningful practice, despite this overwhelming evidence of 2500 years of Buddhist practice. In broad terms, it seems that the alternative model to the traditional one mentioned above, could be described as a 'horizontal' model. In this, you practise with others that are more or less on a par with your own understanding and also with those that may have some more experience but who would never be classified as being 'teachers' in the conventional sense. This creates an environment of equality where dangers such as abuse of power are negated. However, the whole structure of spiritual hierarchy that underpins the traditional 'vertical' approach is dispensed with. There is a view held by many in the West that the relationship between student and teacher is as much to do with power as anything else. When you have trust and faith in a teacher firmly in place you have the basic requisite for what can be a very profound and far-reaching practice. During difficult times of practice, with trust and support you can begin to learn to let go of yourself and all your attachments. This can evoke fear and many other types of emotions, but now you can learn to stay with these experiences, something not possible before you had a teacher. Trust when the teacher says, 'Everything will be okay, open and let go'. You feel supported and may now be in a position to experience the letting go of your precious possessions. This is the crucial aspiration of all Dharma practitioners. We are always going into the unknown in practice and that will always evoke fear in some form or another. To do this practice unaided may not be possible. We will get it wrong, because as we are always going into the unknown, and we cannot know the unknown. How can we therefore know what is the best thing to do? We will inevitably wander off the path without a teacher's indispensable support. Another feature of the student/teacher relationship is one of respect and deference. To be always giving your self up to that person who you recognise as having more spiritual maturity is seen as the opportunity to develop humility and openness. In a traditional ordained sangha there is always a very clearly-defined hierarchy in place to help nurture this habit still further beyond your teacher. To the cynic, hierarchy will be seen as yet another opportunity for power games. However, very complicated forms of hierarchy have been put in place by the wise over the centuries, and these are there to undercut the will to power and encourage surrender and deference, not to mention mindfulness. Hierarchy in all situations throughout the day helps nurture the humility that is necessary for genuine spiritual change to take place, necessary for the breakthrough to our Buddha-nature. Hierarchy is a very profound and indispensable feature of practice. It is the major component that helps create the 'vertical' framework, yet it is put to one side by the 'horizontal' system. Hierarchical relationships are crafted so there is always a 'space' between you and your teacher, and you and others in your sangha. In that space sticky worldly attachments are avoided, as these can distract and impede the practice to a very serious degree. A 'horizontal' sangha runs the danger of becoming 'worldly'. These are like the relationships you had before you came to the practice, self-driven and filled with self-satisfying emotions. The space (or gap) that a 'vertical' form gives is exemplified by your relationship with your teacher, where through ingrained habits you may attach to them, but they will never attach to you! It is a space that is clean, wholesome and non-threatening, and in which you practise the Dharma. You can learn to get familiar and play with the practice in this space without being overtaken by sticky attachments to others. To dispense with the teacher and the qualities of hierarchical sangha is to 'throw the baby out with the bath water'. In my view it is as serious as that. In my view also this will not produce deep spiritual insight, and those that practice in this alternative 'horizontal ' environment could never go on to become spiritual teachers of any substance, fulfilling the need in our western Buddhist world for such precious beings. Humility, surrender, deference, hierarchy. Wow, such words! Us westerners don't need all that kind of stuff! I invite the reader to point to any historical saint, bodhisattva, or whatever you wish to call such beings in Buddhism, who has not learnt and cultivated these virtues, primarily through a teacher, before their breakthrough. I doubt that it has ever happened. Yet we are prepared to marginalise the student/teacher relationship and try something else. We rationalise not having teachers because so many have abused their power and are corrupt. This is true. But the Dharma path is fraught with many dangers, not just corrupt teachers. That is the nature of what we do. If you are burning to see the Dharma, then you will need to take the risk. We do have a very big dilemma in the West in that so many wish to seriously practise the whole of the path, but there simply are not the teachers to go around. But you the reader need not be put off by this. Go and find one in the tradition that attracts you, even if you have to travel far. It is true not everyone has the luxury, the opportunity to go searching, due to their circumstances in life. This is unfortunate. If this applies to you, then find the best situation for yourself and apply yourself wholeheartedly. Much change can still take place; much of the self can still fall away.
Q . Do you think there is role for psychotherapy/counselling in getting people to bring dukkha into awareness? Or do you think there are dangers, and what are they?
A. If that is a useful thing to do, then why not? Counselling no doubt has many worthwhile applications, but in the context of practice? Be very careful. For a practising Buddhist it is important to see the distinction between counselling and spiritual practice. In counselling there tends to be a specific problem or problems that are targeted by both sides and then worked upon in various ways, depending on the method used. Its ultimate success could be another issue. With spiritual training the whole of the person is brought into view with the spirit of working on the whole person and not being side-tracked by parts of the personality that may hinder this ongoing spirit. Usually this training is done in conjunction with a teacher, but primarily the practitioner is nearly always working on himself or herself. I think the danger is thinking that counselling is the same as a Dharma practice. It is necessary to see the completeness and non-discriminatory nature of Dharma practice in order to open to all the qualities that can be worked upon. One of its major qualities is when you truly work through a particular emotional attachment in the thorough and complete way the Dharma teaches, then that particular attachment is gone forever. I wonder if counselling can make such a similar claim?