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Poisoned by doubt

Buddhists texts list 5 major hindrances that get in the way of well-being, peace and enlightenment. Those are:

  • Sensual desire (kamacchanda)
  • Ill-will (byapada)
  • Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)
  • Restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)
  • Sceptical doubt (vicikiccha).

While the other 4 have certainly not been conquered, doubt has been a particular thorn in my practice over the past few year. A thorn, I fear, which has created a festering wound and requires special attention.

However doubt is difficult to tackle because it is often confused with healthy scepticism, the kind of scepticism the Buddha encourages which asks us not to take anything at face value but to find things out for ourselves through our own investigative practice.

On top of this, the wording to explain what doubt feels like can also be confused with teachings about impermanence. Nothing is sure, nothing is certain as Ajahn Chah used to say. Where do you find faith in uncertainty? More specifically where can we find faith in ourselves when nothing is certain?

Because the poison of doubt often manifests itself with the mantra “Am I good enough”. But the question is far more subtle and insidious than this. For my part I notice it more when the praise I receive has no positive impact and is typically received with a gratitude that feels like it is based on quicksand.

Worse still, I have noticed it creates tension and irritation if I bring the slightest notion of doubt and questioning to a casual conversation I have with others. The likes of “I would have thought that …” or “Are you sure that …” are, as they probably should, received with various levels of hostility, even when the intention is to be helpful.

Doubt feels like weeds growing in a garden. Some weeds have pretty flowers so you allow them to stay, even if they are likely to take over the entire garden and prevent the plants you are actively trying to grow from thriving. Where is the line between mindful investigation and poisonous doubt?

The simile from the suttas tell us:

A man traveling through a desert, aware that travelers may be plundered or killed by robbers, will, at the mere sound of a twig or a bird, become anxious and fearful, thinking: “The robbers have come!” He will go a few steps, and then out of fear, he will stop, and continue in such a manner all the way; or he may even turn back. Stopping more frequently than walking, only with toil and difficulty will he reach a place of safety, or he may not even reach it.

It is similar with one in whom doubt has arisen in regard to one of the eight objects of doubt.[4] Doubting whether the Master is an Enlightened One or not, he cannot accept it in confidence, as a matter of trust. Unable to do so, he does not attain to the paths and fruits of sanctity. Thus, as the traveler in the desert is uncertain whether robbers are there or not, he produces in his mind, again and again, a state of wavering and vacillation, a lack of decision, a state of anxiety; and thus he creates in himself an obstacle for reaching the safe ground of sanctity (ariya-bhumi). In that way, sceptical doubt is like traveling in a desert.

Of course the above deals with doubt in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha which isn’t relevant here but the simile still stands as something I can relate to. Doubt begets fear, resentment and ill-will (or just plain ill).

On the abandonment of sceptical doubt the texts say:

There is a strong man who, with his luggage in hand and well armed, travels through a wilderness in company. If robbers see him even from afar, they will take flight. Crossing safely the wilderness and reaching a place of safety, he will rejoice in his safe arrival. Similarly a monk, seeing that sceptical doubt is a cause of great harm, cultivates the six things that are its antidote, and gives up doubt. Just as that strong man, armed and in company, taking as little account of the robbers as of the grass on the ground, will safely come out of the wilderness to a safe place; similarly a monk, having crossed the wilderness of evil conduct, will finally reach the state of highest security, the deathless realm of Nibbana. Therefore the Blessed One compared the abandonment of sceptical doubt to reaching a place of safety.

Comparing the abandonment of doubt to reaching some kind of sanctuary makes sense. The feeling safety is based on trust and faith. But where does one find a place of safety, a sanctuary or safe heaven?

I wish I could end this on a positive note, with a solution of some kind but I am still looking. And finding words which are not heavy with doubt is still very much a struggle.

Source text: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel026.html

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When it comes to words that are not helpful in our spiritual development, the list can get quite big. Typically those which often come back to haunt us includes the likes of “should” or absolutes like “always” and “never”. But lately it has surfaced in my mind another word which is often used in a way to more subtly pushes the proverbial buttons, and yes, it’s just a word.

Now grammatically the word “just” can be used in a variety of contexts. As an adjective it is generally regarded a something to aspire to. After all, the adjective “just” gives us concepts such as “justice”. However switch to the adverb and suddenly we are faced with justification and adjust. By themselves the words can be quite benign but think a little harder and you will find the just creeping its way into arguments and excuses (“I was just doing my job”, “Can I just … ?”). Even its uses in reassurance (“it’s just a bad dream”) is not always helpful and can be the catalyst to completely dismiss a conversation.

What are we not saying when the “just” comes out of our mouths? At times it feels like the verbal wildcard or the “get out of jail” card. In typography we talk about right or left justification and I often wondered why it was called that as opposed to, say, “alignment”. But there is an element of shaping ourselves to a preconceived idea which usually people can hardly define exactly, so that we may fit in, exactly like text matches the right or left border of the paper.

So “just” isn’t just a word, and while it’s perhaps not a tyrant it is nevertheless a word that says more, or less, than it implies. Next time you will pull the just card, perhaps shuffle the pack of cards one more time and think about what you really want to say and if appropriate, why you feel unable to say it.

The precepts as us lay practitioners are expected to abide by do not have a formal order or number they are attached to. However it is common for them to appear in a specific order in formal requests during pūjā.

In this context the Fifth Precept is

Surāmeraya-majja-pamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi

(I undertake the precept to refrain from consuming intoxicating drink and drugs which lead to carelessness)

Here it is quite clear that what is advised specifically pertains to alcohol and recreational drugs but the more I watch our modern world the more it becomes clear that something else ought to be added to this precept: screens.

The use of screens, big or small, may not necessarily “lead to carelessness” in the way that alcohol and drugs have but they do affect us in ways that could be interpreted as leading to some form of carelessness.

Those screens scream for our attention, as a general rule I see so many around me, ,yself included, sucked in this new addiction, whether it’s because of games, social media or some other mean to escape the harsh reality of this modern world, it is all too easy to become a slave to the screens around us. The result often is a neglect for the people we care about, ourselves included. Exposure to bright light, in my case, is very certainly what has been disrupting my sleep patterns those past few years. When I manage to broke the spell, how often do I look up as if awakened from a doze to see people around me looking as if they were “plugged into the Matrix”?

The current world-wide estimate is that 2.3 Billion people now own a smartphone. We give them to our children to shut them up so that we may have some peace and quiet fuelling our own addiction to the screen. Meanwhile we have less and less energy for anything other than basic necessities and that is only scratching the surface of the consequences.

As Buddhists we need to become more mindful of this new phenomenon and incorporate it in our own practice so we may remain on the path always.

This past weekend we celebrated another Wesak festival, remembering and reflecting on the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. Listening to some parts of his journey to Buddhahood made me wonder about certain aspects of it and what to make of them. Specifically I wanted to reflect on what is commonly referred to as “the Four Sights”, namely the time when young Siddharta Gautama wandered off his royal palace and witnessed, allegedly for the first time a sick person, an old person, a dead person and a renunciant.

Now I’m not afraid of using words such as “allegedly”, the Buddha himself made it clear that we should not blindly follow his words but investigate the truth for ourselves.

The premise that prevented young Siddharta from witnessing illness, old age and death (I’ll leave the renunciant life out of this reflection) was that his father never wanting him to be influenced by such ugly things kept him in some gilded cage where everything was beautiful and happy. Reportedly this worked very well until Siddharta was 29-years old. That’s a long time to never see someone ill, or be ill himself. Old age can easily be concealed when you always see the same people day after day. The subtle changes to our bodies don’t become noticeable unless there’s a long period between seeing someone dear to us. As for death, since Siddharta’s mother died shortly after giving birth to him I have always wondered what story his father concocted for him never to question his mother’s absence when there surely were women and children in the palace.

It’s easy to dismiss the tales from the life of the Buddha before he chose the path of the renunciant as some colourful stories such as the ones surrounding his birth. However the 4 sights are supposed to be profound teachings on the nature of impermanence and as such I am reluctant to dismiss that tale as pure fantasy even if it is possible this did not happen the way it is described exactly.

What we can surmise is that building a gilded cage that cuts you off from the reality of the world is rather easy for those growing up in very wealthy environments. The caste system was designed to elevate to wealthy classes above the working classes who are more frequently subjected to illness and death and whose old age is less easily concealed by make up and hair dyes. Yet, I cannot imagine how Siddharta could have possibly spent 29 years of his life and not once being ill, or been around someone who is ill. Perhaps the illnesses he was witness to were masqueraded as normal happenstance but didn’t mirror the type of human suffering he witnessed on the streets.

Because it seems to me that for those 4 sights to have such a big impact they would have to be akin to being splotches of ink on white paper. They’re impossible to miss and very difficult to get rid of. If the white paper is the expectations that Siddharta was told to have (subtly or not), the ink are the 4 sights that changes everything.

Of course the event itself and the circumstances around it are far less important than the teaching behind it so I will not find a reason to be attached to this incoherence but it is an interesting reflective exercise nonetheless.

As I sat meditating tonight I decided to pay attention to something different as an experiment. I am sad to admit that I do not meditate much nowadays and when I do, I don’t quite know where to start having found my experience to date to be unsatisfactory (hello Dukkha…). The wind was blowing outside for a time and it made a wind chime outside sing, so I decided to listen to it.

And then I simply listened. I let the sound of the chime enter my ears and I let it fade away again. There was no melody in it, nothing to trigger a need to write a song, only 5 simple ringing notes that the blowing wind was randomly playing. I use the verb “play” with some reluctance as there was no one acting on it, only the wind. And then I opened my heart to what it means to listen.

The chime wasn’t the only thing producing sound, there were birds too, the branches rubbing against the wall and just the wind itself blowing through the trees. I name all of these so I can put this to words but as I listened I tried my best to let go of those labels, the birds were just another sound from the chime. It arose, entered my ears for a short time and faded away again. There was no feeling of beauty or admiration, it was just the sound. And as I let it fill my awareness, I could not see any thoughts. It only lasted a short while and then they came flooding in again, especially as the wind died down and the world outside became too quiet for my mind to find interest.

But as the thoughts started to come back in, I realised this is what we need to do to listen to others. We let their words fill our awareness and become fully present to their need to speak. No smartphones or social media or other distractions that keep us from truly listening. We don’t always have to sympathise or find an answer, we only need to listen. 

Next time it rains outside I would like to try to meditate by listening to the rain and see where that takes me. I feel as if I finally learnt something tonight. 

When I was a teenager I was once told I was “influence-able”. I would find inspiration from the actions and reasoning of others, mainly famous people, to stir my life in a specific direction. To me this was just inspiration and found nothing bad about it, yet the way this was told to me suggested I wasn’t capable of making my own choices.

Fast forward over 20 years and I find myself doubting whether finding a story, a TV show, a piece of music reasonable mediums from where to find inspiration in the direction I want to take my own life towards. But inspiration is what it is and you cannot decide where it will spring. Sometimes it takes just the right tone or elements of a story to elevate your commitment to become something, someone better. And if these influences stir us in the right direction to improve our lives, to find serenity then surely there is nothing to be ashamed about where these influences came from because someone sneered at us once, a long time ago.

And as it happens this is where I find myself now, having to spend a little time to shut down that voice once and for all so I may focus on my newly found inspiration to improve my own life, my own health, physical and mental and therefore in return improve the lives of others around me.

Last week I started to do some Yoga for the first time. Now I find myself drawn to Tai Chi, or Qi Gong (or both) and I am reminded that there are more than one meditation practices and that sometimes you need to find a way to still the body before you attempt to still the mind. This is the path I intend to explore in the weeks and months to come. Where it takes me doesn’t matter, if I’ve learnt one thing with taking on a journey is that it is done by putting one foot in front of the next, one step at a time.

The more things change

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It occurs to me that once we realise that in life change is inevitable we can see change as a force we can look at and understand better. In that regard, it would appear that there really are only 2 kinds of change: gradual and sudden

Gradual change is the kind you just don’t notice. It’s your children growing a little more day after day but from one night to the next morning that changes are so small it’s impossible to notice until it’s time to buy new clothes or new shoes because they are starting to become too small. Gradual change is the river that starts as a small stream and ends up in a delta feeding the ocean.

Sudden change on the other hand is a little bit of a double-edged sword. It’s something we both fear and desire. We fear sudden change because it often strikes us unprepared. It’s that death in the family you weren’t expecting because the person was fine the previous day or the redundancy that comes crashing because finances are hard. But we also crave sudden change, when we strive to achieve something that takes many long hours of practice, like meditation, and we just want the end result now. Sudden change is like a switch one flicks, which often only has one direction.

It’s interesting to consider the 4 sights that prompted the Buddha on his quest for enlightenment. Illness and old age are both gradual changes whereas death and renunciation  are sudden, albeit with varying levels of control.

Because our relationship to change, to impermanence, is all about control and how little we often have over it. But not always, to paraphrase Gandhi, if change does not suit us, we can become the change we want to see.