Tag Archives: Buddhism

Success. It’s not what you think it is.

The problem with success is, it never ends.

We talk a lot about success even when we don’t use the word. Who has the best job. The biggest house. The handsomest lover. I’d make a poetic list but you get the idea. As  humans we waste most of our time chasing after success, in one form or another. Who has the most? How did they get it? And how do we get our own?

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That fearsome beauty is the buddhist Wheel of Life.  With its demons, ghosts and gods It may look supernatural, but in fact it is all about the real world that we live in. It illustrates what buddhists call Samsara, the cycle of material existence. If it looks familiar, that’s because Samsara is what we in Western christian culture call heaven and hell. But in buddhist culture heaven and hell aren’t somewhere else. We make them here on earth, as part of the cycle of Samsara.

It’s a cycle because the Wheel of Life never stops turning. Buddhists divide Samsara in to six realms, the lowest are pretty hellish and the highest are rather heavenly.  Living creatures struggle to progress around the wheel so they can escape hell and live in heaven. But the cycle is an illusion. Once living creatures have rested in heaven a while, they are sent back to hell, to begin the cycle again.

Figure

At the heart of the Wheel of Life are a pig, a snake and a rooster. Imagine a hamster wheel, but instead of a hamster you have these three animals, and they are always chasing one another, so driving the Wheel of Life forever. Remember Tom and Jerry and their bulldog pal Spike from the Warner Bros cartoons? These animals are a lot like that.

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Of course the world isn’t literally turned by a pig, snake and rooster. These are symbols for three basic human behaviours. Craving, aversion and delusion. I prefer to call them greed, hate and delusion. Those are better translations for Western minds. We act out these behaviours all the time. When we see cake we get greedy for more. We hate the cold and try to escape it. And we fall easily in to delusions, like obsessing about how our hair looks. Who cares? We do, because we’re deluded.

“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same”

If by Rudyard Kipling

So this is success. It’s acting in greedy, hateful and deluded ways to get the top job, the big house, and lots of people pretending to be your friend so they can get at what you have. It’s being the King, the Boss, the Star. And  it’s the illusory belief that these things will last when they won’t, and that they are better than the alternative when they aren’t. Take a look at the world around you. How many people are on the treadmill, running the rat race, climbing the ladder, and walking the eternal cycle of Samsara? How often do you find yourself making the greedy, hateful or deluded choice to get ahead?

That’s most of us, most of the time.

Siddhartha Gautama – an Indian prince who gave up the family trade to become a bum, then later taught some cool ideas about being free and living well – suggests an alternative. Instead of acting with greed, act with generosity. Instead of acting with hatred, act with kindness. And instead of being deluded, try and see the truth. Your haircut doesn’t matter. It truly doesn’t.

Buddhism calls this being skillful. because it’s hard, and requires skill. Greed is your trained response, so to be generous you have to catch yourself in the moment, and choose to share that chocolate with your friend instead of snarfing it all down your gullet. That’s hard, and even the most skillful people fail at it all the time. We’re only human, after all.

Rudyard Kipling finishes the poem If with the two lines: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.” Kipling and Buddha both have the same message. If you can skilfully control your behaviour, you’ll be a man. Which is to say, a human.

The real measure of success isn’t your place on the Wheel of Life. It’s the quality of you’re humanity. So you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Fine. But when you make that $10M bonus do you hoard it away, or give it away? A skilful person can pursue worldly success, it’s a fun thing to do. But they won’t do it at the cost of of their humanity. It’s our skilfulness that makes us human. And it’s being human that is the greatest success.

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I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now.

Yesterday I spent the evening with the Green Papaya sangha at the Yoga Tree in Chiang Mai. Around forty people where there, many regulars, some visitors like me. The sangha – a Buddhist term for a spiritual practice group – are in the Plum Village meditation tradition. A little different from vipassana meditation, which trains students to analyse their thoughts, Plum Village is more slanted towards engagement with the present moment.

We did three sessions of meditation – one guided, one walking, and one silent sitting. For the walking meditation the meditation leader recited a chant to help pace our footsteps.

I have arrived.
I am home.
In the here.
In the now.

Being in the here, in the now, is at the heart of – not just meditation – but all spiritual practice. But it is soooooooooooo hard! And another load of oooooo’s and it’s sill harder than that. The mind – my mind, your mind, our mind – isn’t very good at being where it is. It likes to be in either the past – remembering what has already happened – or in the future – imagining what is to come.

If you have some spare minutes, sit quietly for a while and watch what your mind dos. Label the thoughts that arise. Are they of of the past? Of the future? Are you perceiving the present moment? You’ll find that very little of your time is spent in the here and now.

What you remember of the past is not real, just a memory. What you imagine of the future is not real, just a projection of your hopes or fears. The only thing that is real is where you are, in the here, in the now. There is no past or future, just the ever changing now.

The first time I encountered this idea was through the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. It’s the pivotal idea in his now world famous book The Power of Now. But I heard it in a recording of a four day retreat conducted by Tolle, published as the Journey In To Yourself. I was 30 and, by any measure, deeply unhappy. I’d been pushing down a lot of horrible emotions from a damaging childhood, grief from many losses, and had trapped myself in a life I didn’t fit in to from a desperate need to fit somewhere, anywhere. I had no kind of spiritual practice at all. I was a standard issue atheist, and any encounter I had with religion was edged with inherited and unexamined scorn. Consequentially, I really had no tools to process the pain I was feeling. Today, my argument with the radical atheist rhetoric of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett – both of whom I had read heavily at university – is that it leaves the bulk of its believers utterly amputated from their own emotional reality. It certainly had me. I was miserable, and in trying to escape from the causes of the misery I’d driven myself, repeatedly, to the borders of emotional collapse where I had, at long last, collapsed.

So downloading a talk by an odd sounding German guy from Audible was probably, on the level of latent spiritual instinct, a last ditch attempt to pull myself out of a very dark place. For some reason I lay down on the floor of my apartment to listen to Eckahart Tolle’s characteristically odd voice as it pipped out of my laptop. And the next thing I knew, I was caught up in uncontrollable laughter…not that I was making any effort to control it. Not the laughter of scorn and anger that so much modern humour is rooted in. Not truly the laughter of humour at all. But the laughter of release. Massive, explosive, unexpected release, like a lock had been unpicked to the chain holding my emotions in place. And the key was Eckhart Tolle’s words about past and future, and our mind’s obessive need to escape to one or another, away from the present.

Walking in meditation with the Green Papaya sangha I remembered that first moment of radical contact with the present. The first time I had arrived, home, in the here and the now. And in the studio of the Yoga Tree, I found myself there again. “Home” is a very good word for the here and now of the present moment. When you come back to the present, even for a second, and regardless of where you are, however foreign it may be, it feels like arriving back at home. It’s why I think meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices are so common among travellers. Once you have found the present moment, you carry your home with you wherever you choose to travel.

It is easy to wander off the path and loose your home though. For some months after getting there, with the help of Eckhart Tolle, I felt elated, ecstatic, barely part of the world any more. Liberated, in a very real sense, from the sadness I had been carrying around. As I later discovered from the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, this is a common period in a meditation practice. Inevitably, it is followed by a return to normality. I spent the next four years trying to understand that experience, reading widely about Buddhism and other spiritual paths, and learning to meditate. That period culminated on a trip to California in late 2011, where I spent most of three weeks meditating and running on the beach in San Diego. In the two years since then that spiritual practice and meditation have settled in to the background of my life. I’ve returned to more worldly pursuits, spending more time on my writing career again.

Padding in circles at the Yoga Tree, I realised I had lost the moment for a long time. In day to day life it’s so easy to stay wrapped up in your memories and imaginings of past and future. It’s easy to sit down and meditate and spend an hour thinking through your hopes,fears and ambitions and never hit the here and now once. This is both natural and sad. It’s like being right outside the front door of your home, but never going in, staying on the cold steps outside instead. Last night, for a while at least, I came home again.

I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now.

There is a 21 day meditation retreat at Doi Suthep, the temple above Chiang Mai. Later this year, I’m going to go and do it.

The poem above is by Thich Nhat Hanh. You could read it and an extended talk by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher here.

The answer to a riddle

Last year I wrote a short story called A Vast Bit of Hod, which I published to my blog here. As I mentioned at the time, the story is also a riddle. I have congratulated half a dozen people who emailed me the answer. This evening James Everington tweeted me to ask:

btw, when are you going to post the ‘answer’ to the “Vast Bit of Hod” story? It’s been bugging me ever since (in a good way)

Which I have been meaning to do for sometime. So.

Harold, the central character in A Vast Bit of Hod, is completing a crossword when we meet him, behind the counter in the weird antique / collectibles store where the story takes place. The crossword clue is the title of the story. If you aren’t good at anagrams, here is an anagram server to help you. We’ll come back to what the anagram is momentarily.

A Vast Bit of Hod began life when my friend Dana, fellow Clarion writers’ workshop graduate, sent out an email challenge to write a story about a shop that sells lives. Because I’m working on novel length things, I hadn’t written a short story for a time, but this challenge brought an idea to mind that I couldn’t resist. Our Clarion tutor Neil Gaiman says that novels are like a long journey, whereas short stories are like seeing a tree and deciding to climb up it. So I decided to climb this tree.

For three years now I have been studying Buddhism. I enjoy it from an intellectual perspective, and I’ve found the insight meditation techniques it teaches tremendously helpful. Two linked ideas in Buddhism are karma and reincarnation. These are both hard ideas to grasp from a rational perspective. There is no evidence of any mechanism in nature to make ‘what goes around come around’, and very few people I know believe they will come back to life as a goat, or even an Emperor. But as myths they point towards the idea that our behaviour defines our life, an idea I do believe.

So in my shop customers enter to select the new lives which they will incarnate within after when they are reborn. They deposit their old lives in the form of an object which they hand to the shop keeper, and select a new object which symbolises their new life. I’m afraid I’m not very complimentary about the lives many of us choose. In particular I heap a little scorn on the fantasy lives we escape in to, while our actual lives decay around us. For a writer of fantasy, I’m oddly ambivalent about the role of fantasy in our lives.

A Vast Bit of Hod is an anagram for (excluding the ‘of’) Bodhisattva. This is the Buddhist term for, depending on your translation, either humans well on the path to enlightenment, or those who are enlightened but choose to live in the world and help others reach enlightenment. Harold is a little bit of both.  He isn’t exactly kind to Anthony, but he does what needs to be done to help the young man move from one life to the next. At the end of the story, Harold is left holding a simple wooden bowl, the traditional begging bowl that is the only possession of Buddhist monks who have renounced all worldly things. Harold has another lifetime or two of suffering before he is ready for nirvana. But first he fancies another biscuit…

You can read A Vast Bit of Hod here.

Thought and Dream

Spent the day at a Writing and Meditation retreat on Queens Road in Leicester. The area seems to be a hot bed of Buddhist activity, with at least half a dozen different meditation groups around and about. The day has left me thinking about how writing and meditation combine.

I’ve always made relaxation and visualisation part of my workshops when I teach creative writing, since I first encountered the idea through a workshop at the first Alt.Fiction festival run by Justina Robson. All complex activities require a certain combination of conscious / subconscious, left brain / right brain, mind / imagination, or whichever terms you choose to use. If you watch a great artist, or athlete, or  musician in action you can see that their mental state is not normal. This is because they are balancing two conflicting mental states, thinking and dreaming, inside one head. It’s from that Thought / Dream space that all true creativity comes, not just art but science and any other creative acts.

Writing places its own particular demands on the Thought / Dream relationship. To imagine a story requires very deep immersion into the Dream space. But to write the the story you need to access the highest levels of your Thought space. And to write really well, you need to do both at once. Most educated people can do the thinking part, and many can recover the skills of dreaming after their education is done, but to get both of these processes working together can be a great challenge.

Meditation is all about balancing Thought and Dream. There are many techniques, but they all return to the same principle of entering the present moment and awakening to both the outer world and the inner world of thoughts and dreams. Once you learn to bring that state of mind to your writing, as opposed to a purely intellectual approach that is often taught, you find that progress comes in leaps and bounds.

But meditation is not an answer on its own. To make the most of the Thought / Dream space, you need to enter it with a mastery of form and technique. Just as a dancer will practice their moves over and over again until they do them without thinking, a writer needs to learn the tools of their craft – narrative, description, dialogue, scene building – so they can use them whilst in the Thought / Dream space.

Now I’m off to do some real dreaming. Tomorrow is an entire day of writing in the library. Wish me luck.