Wednesday, 27 July 2016

All Things Great and Small

This is the second talk in a series of six given at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre in the summer of 2016.

Integration is about wholeness and completeness, it’s about bringing together all aspects of our psyche,our life, our values, all aspects of ourselves great and small. Each one of us is like a bunch of different people with conflicting desires, conflicting drives, conflicting behaviour, even pulling in different directions. Spiritual practice can accentuate our experience of this – but it also helps to bring it all together – in awareness. Awareness is the key to integration.

When we embark on the journey of spiritual life we want and need to take all of us on the journey or as much as possible. This means becoming aware of the different pulls, the different desires in us, how we conflict with ourselves. Knowing what is best for us and actually doing what is best for us  is not quite the same thing and doing what we want is not the same as doing what is best. Sometimes we are too weak, or too unintegrated, to fully pursue our highest values, our spiritual goals. So we need to become more aware of ourselves aware of those different tendencies in ourselves, aware of our character and temperament, aware of our habits, and aware of how we have been conditioned by our upbringing, our family, our schooling, and the society around us. When we get to know ourselves, when we know what we’re like, then we know the raw material that we’re working with on the spiritual path. We know what we are trying to transform.

So the question arises how can we become more integrated. I tend to think of integration as broadly covering three areas. These three areas are simply a way of approaching the topic of integration. The three areas are psychological integration, life integration, and spiritual integration. Psychological integration is about knowing yourself, life integration is about being yourself, and spiritual integration is about challenging yourself. So first of all psychological integration.

Psychological integration, as I said, is about knowing yourself – having no secrets from yourself. In order to know yourself you have to look closely at your conditioning. You have to look at how you were conditioned by your family. This can reveal our attitudes to such things as money, sex, religion, career, politics, race, nationality and all sorts of other areas of life. So becoming aware of this conditioning and becoming aware of our attitudes gives us the choice to retain or change our attitudes. These attitudes will have been conditioned not just by our family but also by our education, our religious training, if any, and the whole tone of the society around us and what is accepted as normal and what is rejected. For instance our society is very much a consumer culture and children are trained in consumerism from a very early age. According to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood,  “Children ages 2-11 see more than 25,000 advertisements a year on TV alone, a figure that does not include product placement. They are also targeted with advertising on the Internet, cell phones, mp3 players, video games, school buses, and in school.”
This may seem quite normal to us but future generations may view it as a form of child abuse, in the same way that we view the 19th century practice of sending children up chimneys. There are many things which our ancestors took as a matter of course which we find rather strange today In the same way there are many things which we take to be acceptable which other nations or future generations will consider to be ridiculous or appalling. . In some countries this kind of conditioning of children is outlawed. For example in Sweden it is prohibited to advertise to children under 12. In order to become free of our conditioning we need to try to have a bigger perspective on what is considered normal in our families and in our societies. It is possible to be parochial in our attitudes to the times we live in as well as in our attitudes to the place where we live. Scientific and technological advances may have led us into the arrogance of thinking we know and understand more than we actually do. Of course conditioning continues all the time, it is not just something that happens in childhood. We are being conditioned every day, we are conditioning ourselves every day. The shops you visit, the news you hear or read, the attitudes prevalent in society, in our workplaces, on TV, in films – all of this is having a conditioning effect on us and we need to bring awareness to this and try to exercise some choice in our conditioning. I have noticed particularly how people pick up ideas and behaviours from workplaces, which they then assume to be a standard for life.  Of course many workplace norms may be just a bureaucratic over-reaction to particular events and may even have the opposite of the desired effect when applied in a blanket fashion.

As well as exploring and understanding our conditioning, we need to learn about our personality, our temperament. What kind of person are we – are we an extrovert or introvert, do our interests lean more towards the arts or towards the sciences, are we very practical  or are we more of a dreamer, are we decisive or indecisive, are we someone who is only interested in the big picture or are we concerned with the details, do we plan or do we prefer to be very spontaneous and impulsive, are we lazy, are we always busy, are  we an active or a passive person? In Buddhism traditionally there are three types; greed type, hate type and deluded type. We could ask which predominates in us. We could also try to become aware of our habits; our habitual ways of thinking, our habitual ways of seeing the world, our habitual ways of seeing ourselves, our habitual behaviour, our good habits and bad habits. Sangharakshita has said we are essentially a bundle of habits loosely tied together, more often than not bad habits.

We also need to become aware of any inner conflict. Are we being pulled in different directions – e.g. wanting to concentrate on accumulating wealth in order to be happy and secure and at the same time wanting to lead a spiritual life in order to be happy and secure or perhaps less conscious conflicts around the whole area of wanting to make an effort to change and not wanting to make an effort to change. Bhante talks about two aspects of himself that were in conflict in his younger days – the monk and the poet. One part of him wanted to be very disciplined and just meditate and study the Dharma and another side of him wanted to laze about dreaming and writing poetry. I have experienced these kinds of conflict in myself too – an aspect of me that was very strict and disciplinarian and another which was lazy and rebellious. Firstly it is necessary to become aware of these kinds of polarity in ourselves and then that awareness helps to resolve the conflict – usually with some sort of internal compromise that allows for different kinds of expression.

Integration is not about a forcible denial of some aspect of yourself. It’s not about getting rid of aspects of yourself; it is about creating a large field of awareness which can contain or hold all aspects of yourself. It’s about being big. I coined an aphorism some years ago – don’t be good, be big – which perhaps captures some of the spirit of what we are trying to achieve with integration. There is a Zen image which talks about controlling an animal by giving it a large field and similarly we don’t control our minds by restricting them but by allowing them a large field in which to roam. The task of our awareness is to watch, to notice.
The next area of integration is what I have called life integration. This is about integrating the external with the internal. How are our higher values, the values which we hold most dear, lived out in our work lives, in our home lives, as well as in the privacy of our own hearts and minds?
Here's what the Sangiti Sutta says about the practice of spiritual community, for instance:

“ Six things are conducive to communal living. As long as monks both in public and in private show loving kindness to their fellows in acts of body, speech and thought,…. share with their virtuous fellows what ever they receive as a rightful gift, including the contents of their alms bowls, which they do not keep to themselves,… keep consistently, unbroken and unaltered those rules of conduct that are spotless, leading to liberation, praised by the wise, unstained and conducive to concentration, and persist therein with their fellows both in public and in private,… continue in that noble view that leads to liberation, to the utter destruction of suffering, remaining in such awareness with their fellows both in public and in private.” Digha Nikaya 33.

There is this interesting repetition of the phrase "in public and in private" which reinforces the idea that spiritual community is a practice. In this case it is a practice of loving kindness, generosity, ethics and right view.

So this area of life integration is about being the same person in private and in public; the same values, the same behaviour. And it is also about bringing our external life into line with our internal life. For instance we may need to ask ourselves does our work or living situation support our values and suit our character. For example Siddhartha before he became the Buddha lived a life of luxury which he found did not support his aspirations. It is said that he lived in a Palace or a number of palaces, but to him they were like prisons. What are our palaces? What in our lives supports our aspirations? What doesn’t? Many of you will have created personal mandalas at one time or another. You draw a circle on a piece of paper; one side of the circle is what is important to you, the other half is how you spend your time, money and energy, what you put closest to the centre of the circle is what is most important to you on one side and on the other side is what you spend most time and energy and money on. This simple exercise tends to show us if there is a discrepancy between what we aspire to do with our lives and what we are actually doing with our lives. So the question for us then in terms of integration, is how to bring the two closer together. How to integrate the external and internal, how to integrate the public and private, how to integrate our lives at work, at home and at leisure with our values and our temperament. Or to put it more simply how can we be ourselves as well as knowing ourselves? We could also talk about this kind of integration in terms of taking the iniative to create the conditions which will be most conducive to making spiritual progress, most supportive of living a spiritual life.

 The third area of integration is what I’ve called spiritual integration. Spiritual integration is about integrating around spiritual ideals, spiritual practices and spiritual qualities. We sometimes speak of spiritual integration in terms of putting something at the centre of your life and arranging or aligning everything else in your life in relation to what is central. Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha means having the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha at the centre of our lives and everything else is arranged in relation to those ideals. So your ethical practice, meditation, study, going on retreat, spiritual friendship etc would become the priorities and other things would be more or less important depending on whether they supported the central ideals and practices. This is challenging. It might mean going on retreat instead of on holiday. Or studying or attending a study group instead of going to the cinema, or spending time with friends instead of with a partner, or meditating rather than watching the TV or surfing the Internet.

We also speak of spiritual integration in terms of commitment. Making a commitment can be very challenging for some people. It can be seen or sensed as a restriction of freedom. Making a commitment is basically about making a choice, making a decision. It’s about deciding to do one thing rather than something else, it’s about choosing one direction rather than another. As the poet Robert Frost says: “two roads diverged in the wood and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” The spiritual path is the road less travelled, the path less trodden. Although commitment can be conceived of as a restriction of freedom – in practice it is the opposite. Let’s take a very mundane example – you want to buy a new pair of shoes, you need new shoes. Now you can go online and spend several hours researching to find just what you want. Then you could visit several shoe shops and department stores and in each place you could try on several shoes. There is no restriction on your freedom here – and you could keep on expanding your choices for a long time. But when you decide, choose a pair of shoes and pay your money then you have restricted yourself, you have chosen, you have made a commitment. But although you have restricted the freedom to keep on looking, to keep on expanding your choices, you have created another freedom for yourself. Firstly you have freed up all the time and energy you were wasting on endless indecision and secondly, you now have the freedom to wear the new shoes – which was the whole point in the first place.

In our world you could also keep your spiritual options open indefinitely. There are different religions to choose from. When you have settled for one of these – there are many different varieties within each religion. In Buddhism you have Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana,. You have Theravada, Tibetan, Zen, Pure Land and so on. Within Theravada you have Sri Lankan, Burmese, Thai. Within Tibetan there are Gelug, Nyingma , etc. Within Zen there are Soto and Rinzai. And of course there are new Western variations on these and many different teachers to follow; Ole Nydale, Pema Chodron, Joseph Goldstein, Daniel Ingrams, Sharon Salzburg, Rob Burbea and many many more. Just as with shoes, you could keep on expanding your choices, visiting places, trying out new things. We all have that freedom. It is really the freedom to waste our time and run around in circles. Making a commitment liberates us from that dubious freedom and sets us on the path of spiritual integration.

When you decide, when you commit, your time and energy is freed up to actually practice wholeheartedly (to wear the shoes), you can now give your time and energy more fully to the practices which give rise to the qualities which will lead in the direction of the ideal.

In our case in Triratna these practices are ethics – the Five or Ten Precepts, meditation – mindfulness of breathing, the Metta Bhavana and just sitting, study – Bhante’s elucidation of the Dharma, reflection, friendship and Sangha, ritual and devotion, retreats – both collective and solitary.

In his exposition of the first three fetters – the fetters which hold us back from stream entry, from entering fully and wholeheartedly into the stream of the Dharma, the stream of spiritual vision and spiritual Awakening, Bhante Sangharakshita talks about clarity and commitment as the antidote to indecision and superficiality. Clarity is what helps us to decide what direction we want to travel in, commitment is actually undertaking the journey. As Bhante says: “Growth and development is often a painful process – even though it is enjoyable! Therefore we tend to shrink back. We tend not to commit ourselves. We keep our options open, as we say. We keep a number of different interests, or a number of different aims, on which we can fall back, and we allow ourselves to oscillate between them: even drift between them.” Taste of Freedom, p. 32.

Spiritual integration is about challenging yourself to make a choice and following through on that choice with commitment. You have to ask yourself; “Am I serious about this – do I really mean it? If so – what holds me back? Why do I hold back? That leads to an exploration of fears, resistances and conditions and a growing awareness of the way forward.

I’ve talked about integration in terms of psychological integration – knowing yourself, life integration – being yourself and spiritual integration – challenging yourself.

How do we go about becoming more integrated? Well as I said at the outset awareness is key. Sometimes we equate the practice of the mindfulness of breathing meditation with integration but that is just part of the practice. The mindfulness of breathing is an important practice in the process of becoming integrated, but it is not the only practice and probably not enough on its own. We need to work on integrating ourselves all the time. It can be like a game we play – a game of noticing, a game of awareness – a kind of “I spy with my little eye game”. We need to notice our responses to situations, and to people and reflect on them, ask ourselves questions. We need to notice when we blame people, situations and events for our state of mind. We can ask ourselves – what if I didn’t blame? How does blaming feel? What purpose is served by blaming? And so on. We can notice when we are complaining – we can ask is it habitual? We can notice when we are content – and ask ourselves – what gives rise to contentment, happiness? We can notice our energy and aliveness. We can notice what our preferences are – what we like and what we don’t like. We can notice what really interests us and where our energy goes. We can notice what moves us. We can try to be aware of how our conditioning is at work in our lives all the time – in our responses, in our likes and dislikes, in what we approve of and don’t approve of, and so on. We can also bring awareness to our body, because body and mind are not divorced and our body carries our conditioning too.

And in all cases – positive or negative – we can ask ourselves – what gives rise to do this? In dependence on what conditions is this arisen? When we have clarity about the conditions that give rise to contentment, energy, aliveness, creativity etc, we can put energy into creating those conditions or strengthening those conditions in our lives. There are conditions for a healthy happy mind and there are conditions for a healthy happy body. Proper food, exercise and rest is good for your body. By noticing and being aware you will discover what conditions affect your mind most – what gives rise to happiness and contentment and what gives rise to grumpiness, blaming and complaining. There are external conditions that you can try to be objective about – for instance which is better for me – Facebook or fresh air, the Internet or exercise?

Integration is about knowing yourself, being yourself and challenging yourself. The two key practices I would like to highlight as the most effective practices for becoming more integrated and whole are friendship and going on retreat. They can of course be combined – go on retreat with friends.

Integration is not a solitary affair. We need other people to help and encourage us and they need us. We can get to know ourselves via our friends. We need to be open to how they see us – especially the positive qualities they see in us. If we have people we can confide in, confess to and be open with – it will be an enormous help to us. Friendship can free people from the burden of secrets and shame and provide a context of warmth and understanding which we all need as a basis for progress on the spiritual path. I have often encountered people who experience a lot of guilt and shame but usually it is not a shame that is of any spiritual value. We need only be ashamed of unskilfulness.

Some people blush a lot and feel embarrassed easily – but often this is just a matter of early conditioning and has no spiritual significance or importance. I was like that when I first came to Triratna. I used to even get embarrassed on behalf of other people. My friend Atula told me once that I’d have to follow the path of embarrassment. In other words, not allow a response of embarrassment to get in the way of communication and friendship. It’s the same with fear or insecurity or feeling inadequate – don’t let them get in the way of friendship. Friendship is crucial to spiritual life, and communication and listening are crucial to friendship. You develop a friendship by being a friend to others: think of others, listen to them, try to see their point of view, stand in their are shoes, be helpful, be encouraging, take an interest in people. Friendship is a mirror, a mutual mirror, in which you can see both sameness and uniqueness.

Going on retreat is important because it is in retreat conditions that we go deeper and become more aware. We become more aware of ourselves at deeper levels while on retreat and this greater self knowledge enables more integration to happen. Going on retreat is really an indispensable practice for anyone who is serious about making progress on the spiritual path. For the first four or five years it is most important to go on retreat with others to build friendships and share experiences. This kind of mutual support is the foundation of spiritual community. Later we can add to this by going on more silent and meditative retreats and eventually some solitary retreat time will be very helpful. Of all these kinds of retreat the most important are the retreats where we build friendships and are mutually supportive with our peers – whatever level we perceive ourselves to be at.

If we practise consistently and persistently our awareness will grow and we will gradually become more and more integrated and whole. Then, integration will naturally give rise to positive emotion and skilful action and that is what I will look at in the next talk.

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