Archive for October, 2010

Meditation for living sustainably 1

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

1 Meditation in the environment

 Meditation is a way of learning to pay attention to your surroundings.  It is a process which is not confined to religious practices, but is a fundamental aspect of human behaviour to deal with the things that concern all of us in our everyday lives.  Nowadays, these issues are the problems of living in modern society where every interaction, good and bad, between cultures and between cultures and environment, is instantly transmitted around the world.  In this sense we all lead global lives.   Also, deadlines in our working lives have to be met that seem irrelevant to inner values.  In this connection, mindfulness meditation is a well-trodden path by which an individual can attain security and happiness, and become free from inner burdens of fear, anger, hurt, and sorrow. The environmental aims of mindfulness meditation are to become more aware of local interactions between culture and ecology;  to seek and appreciate the complexity that underlies nature and humankind’s uses of it, but to live with the simplicity of an idea, common to many religions and proved by science, that we are at one with all forms of life..  Each contact with the environment, directly through sights and sounds, or indirectly through words and pictures, is regarded as a spiritual exercise to provide a momentary stay against the stress and confusion of everyday life.  In this way, the process of mindfulness mediation is to keep thoughts circling back to reinforce this idea of cosmic unity.  The outcome of these moments of self-help is total certainty and a complete absence of confusions: a mind that remains unstained, invulnerable and completely unaffected by the ups and downs of life.   In other words, despite being immersed in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts, we have no desire to reach after facts and reason to explain them. The poet Keats described this meditative detached state of mind as ‘negative capability’. 

Time spent voluntarily in nature can always be a form of mindfulness meditation.  It takes place when we put our full attention on what is around us – the earth, trees, buildings, flowers, animals, people, fresh air, and water in all its forms.  This meditation can be done while sitting, standing or walking. To intensify the experience, the aim is to allow yourself to pay attention to the sights, sounds and smells without labelling them and becoming mentally involved with them. There will always be a tendency of the mind to name and evaluate everything – “Oh, look at that beautiful bird. What kind is it?  Is it here all winter, or where does it go?”  What we seem to need is the frame of reference, the context, the story that accompanies what we are seeing. When these kinds of thoughts come up, let them go. Simply experience the colours, shape, sounds, movement of the bird or whatever else you are experiencing. Let it be a meeting up with reality without meaning and without reference to any other phenomenon. Meditation is to be aware of every thought and of every feeling minute by minute, never to say it is right or wrong but just to watch it and move with your thoughts and feelings. 

For example, on a sunny day you walk into your well-tended garden.  Happily you notice the beauties and scents, the insects and birds, the growing and dying of plants.  Then you also notice that you should have tidied up the grass and weeded the paths.  Next you find yourself becoming occupied with listing the things you have to do in the garden and start planning a future programme of work.  Now, mindfulness meditation should click in: let the list go and return to your original state of happiness whien being in the garden made you understand that people and nature are, in some way, mysteriously one.  That is to say, there is harmony and a rapport between them, which fuses them together yet does not deprive each of its true individuality and you come to see all things in yourself, and yourself in all things. 

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, meditating on an image of the environment in his childhood had come to the same understanding.  

“ I still remember the day in my childhood (he writes), when I was made to struggle across my lessons in a first primer, strewn with isolated words smothered under the burden of spelling.  The morning hour appeared to me like a once-illuminated page, grown dusty and faded, discoloured with irrelevant marks, smudges and gaps, wearisome in its moth-eaten meaninglessness.  Suddenly I came to a rhymed sentence of combined words, which may be translated thus- It rains, the leaves tremble’,  At once I came to a world wherein I recovered my full meaning.  My mind touched the creative realm of expression, and at that moment I was no longer a mere student with his mind muffled by spelling lessons, enclosed in a classroom.  The rhythmic picture of the tremulous leaves beaten by the rain opened before my mind the world which does not merely carry information but a harmony with my being.  The unmeaning fragments lost their individual isolation and my mind revelled in the unity of a vision.  In a similar manner, on that morning in the village the facts of my life suddenly appeared to me in a luminous units of truth.  All things that had seemed like vagrant waves were revealed to my mind in relation to a boundless sea.  I felt sure that some Being who comprehended me and my world was seeking his best expression in all my experiences uniting them into an ever-widening individuality which is a spiritual work of art.” 

Four centuries before this, another child, Thomas Treherne, the son of a shoemaker at Hereford in western England, underwent a similar meditative experience that was to change his life for ever. 

“Another time in a lowering and sad evening, being alone in the field, when all things were dead and quiet, a certain want and horror fell upon me, beyond imagination. The unprofitableness and silence of the place dissatisfied me; its wideness terrified me; from the utmost ends of the earth fears surrounded me. How did I know but dangers might suddenly arise from the East, and invade me from the unknown regions beyond the seas? I was a weak and little child, and had forgotten there was a man alive in the earth. Yet something also of hope and expectation comforted me from every border. This taught me that I was concerned in all the world: and that in the remotest borders the causes of peace delight me, and the beauties of the earth when seen were made to entertain me: that I was made to hold a communion with the secrets of Divine Providence in all the world: that a remembrance of all the joys I had from my birth ought always to be with me: that the presence of Cities, Temples, and Kingdoms ought to sustain me, and that to be alone in the world was to be desolate and miserable.” 

Thenceforth, Treherne knew that he must pursue his quest for ever greater enlightenment through the means available to him. He eventually became rector of the village of Credenhill, near Hereford, and subsequently private chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Lord Keeper of the Seals of England. His daily adult life became the arena wherein he sought to gain a constant increment of soul-experience, applying his vision of the unity of all beings to a selfless practice of unfailing kindness and understanding in the practical pursuits of his career.   That he did gain insights is clear from the enthusiasm he infused into his writings. 

Going even further back again in time, the pagan Roman philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius had reached a similar equilibrium with the social pressures of his world in the first century BC when he meditated; 

“Whether it’s atoms or nature, the first thing to be said is this: I am part of a world controlled by nature.  Secondly: that I have a relationship with other, similar parts.  And with that in mind I have no right, as a part, to complain about what is assigned me by the whole. Because what benefits the whole can’t harm the parts, and the whole does nothing that doesn’t benefit it.  That’s a trait shared by all natures, but the nature of the world is defined by a second characteristic as well: no outside force can compel it to cause itself harm”. 

Marcus Aurelius also reminds us that we need to meditate on the environment not only to answer the question; How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? but also because science alone cannot provide answers to the related questions, Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How can we be sure that what we do is right? How should we deal with pain and misfortune? Meditation on these important questions requires a state of watchful awareness, which looks at everything with complete attention, totally, not just parts of it in great detail. No one can teach you this life skill and the danger of adopting any system that purports to teach you how to be attentive is that you become attentive to the system and that is not the attention needed for meditation. In a broader sense, what you learn by watching nature can be applied to learn about yourself.  Watch the way you walk, how you eat, what you say, the gossip, the hate, the jealousy -if you are aware of all that in yourself, without any choice, that is mindful meditation.

From the point of view of education,  the effects of mindfulness training can enhance well-being in a number of ways. If you practice being in the present, you can increase positive feelings by savouring pleasurable on-going experiences. Additionally, calming the mind and observing experiences with a latent curiosity and acceptance not only reduces stress but helps with attention control and emotion regulation- skills which are valuable both inside and outside the classroom. Finally, these skills for meditating on the environment are essential to produce behaviour changes necessary for most people to live sustainably.   In this context, mindfulness is not superficial awareness.  It sees things deep down below the level of opinions and generalisations.  The practical objective of mindfulness meditation is to apply wisdom and understanding to establish new values of caring for ecosystems and applying fairness to cross-cultural economic links, so restoring human connectedness and dependence on the natural order of planet Earth.  This gentling of human interactions with nature is done by forging direct links between intellectual knowledge and moment-to-moment personal and social actions.   

Heightened environmental awareness in this way contributes directly to activities that cause the flourishing of human persons, their communities, and the ecosystems of which they are part.  The path to behaviour change proceeds in stages. Each stage starts with the intention to be open, flexible and kind.  Then there is the intention to move forward tentatively and inquisitively to meet a practical objective. At the end of the activity, whether or not there is a feeling of success or failure in the intention, the act is sealed by thinking of others who are succeeding and failing in similar activities all over the world. Finally, there is a wish that anything learned in the experiment could also benefit them. These stages are close to the ‘noble principles’ of Buddhism, namely to further a completely open heart (attitude) to live a compassionate life in which we love and care about all things.

2 Cultivating ‘interbeing’ 

To live in mindful meditation is the most important precept of all in Buddhism; to know what is going on, to be aware of what we do and what we are, during each minute.  When we are totally mindful, we realize that all phenomena are interdependent and endlessly interwoven. This is the foundation of what the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls the principle of “interbeing. He uses the following metaphor of ‘The cup in your hands’ to explain it. 

“In the United States, I have a close friend named Jim Forest.  When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship.  Last winter, Jim came to visit.  I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else.  One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes.  I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes.  The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.”  Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way… to wash the dishes to wash the dishes”  From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes.  I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week. If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.”  What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.  In fact, we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink.  If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either because while drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands.  Thus we are sucked away into the future and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”  

The cup is also a metaphor encapsulating the life-giving property of water.  He continues:  

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” 

 From this way of holistic thinking came his suggestion that God did not create man in his own image but we have created ‘god’ in the image of humankind in order to give a name to the universal need for a oneness of all being. The starting point for this conjecture is that the world exists independent of our knowledge of it and that human knowledge is not reality but a limited representation of it. Interbeing is the approach, not only to nonviolence but to all of life, and leads to the most important practice in Buddhist meditation of letting go or “washing away.” Wrong perceptions, ideas and notions are at the root of our suffering.  They are the ground of all afflictions. In order for us to touch happiness in the here and now, we need to throw away the ideas and notions that prevent us from learning and growing. In particular, we should jettison our attachment to biased views, extreme behaviour, and rules and rituals that have created fear and hatred in our hearts. 

This sentiment of ‘living now’ is clearly expressed in the thoughts of the naturalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau as he made journeys through his New England neighbourhood . 

“Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated. That sound commonly reminds us that we are growing rusty and antique in our employments and habits of thought. The bird’s philosophy comes down to a more recent time than ours. There is something suggested by it not in Plato nor the New Testament. It is a newer testament — the Gospel according to this moment. He has not fallen astern; he has got up early, and kept up early, and to be where he is, is to be in season, in the foremost rank of time. It is an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world — healthiness as of a spring burst forth — a new fountain of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time. Where he lives no fugitive slave laws are passed. Who has not betrayed his master many times since last he heard that note?” 

Thoreau’s ideas of interbeing, which he called ‘the gospel of the moment’, also came from walking the countryside around his hometown.. 

“But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours — as the swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise go in search of the springs of life. My vicinity affords many good walks, and though I have walked almost every day for so many years, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absoutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farm-house which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the king of Dahomey.  There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the three-score-years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you”. 

Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking, links walking, thinking and place in a powerful way. 

“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains”

3 Awareness 

Jiddu Krishnamurti, whose writings on education reflect a confluence of Eastern and Western thinking, answered the question about the meaning of awareness of environment as follows: 

“If you look into your minds, you will see it’s like thousands of butterflies whirling about! You can hardly trace a single idea in this complexity. A way to bring clarity to the mind is to write down your immediate thoughts and feelings in response to the events of the day, and then ponder them. If you emphasize one particular problem in this descriptive writing, it will gradually lead to all others. Awareness implies sensitivity: to be sensitive to nature, to the hills, rivers and the trees around one; to be aware of that poor man walking down the road; to be sensitive to his feelings, his reactions, to his appalling and degrading poverty; to be sensitive to the man who is sitting next to you, or to the nervousness of your friend or sister. Although this sensitivity to things shapes and sounds around you, there is no choice about which things to concentrate on.  Also, there is no judgemental evaluation. For example, you can be sensitive to a cloud about which you can do nothing. Learn to observe sensitively with the senses and to grasp what you see and hear rather than cultivate it”. 

Seeing is a very complex affair. Most people see casually and swiftly pass by.  To meditate with your eyes you must see the details of a leaf, its form and structure, its colours, the variety of greens; to observe a cloud with all the light of the world in it, to follow a stream chattering down the hill; to look at your friend with the sensitivity in which there is no resistance.  This is to see yourself as part of the whole; to see the immensity of the universe; this is meditation through the eyes: to see yourself as you are without the shades of denial or easy acceptance. To meditate through your ears is to be sensitive to the tones, the voice, to the implication of words, to hear without interference, to capture instantly the depth of a sound. Sound plays an extraordinary part in our lives: the sound of thunder, a flute playing in the distance, the unheard sound of the universe; the sound of silence, the sound of one’s own heart beating; the sound of a bird and the noise of a man walking on the pavement; the crashing waterfall. The universe is filled with sound. To be attentive is to hear this unity and move with your thoughts. To meditate is simply to become aware of what enters your thoughts as sights and sounds in their unquestioned detail.  The aim is to begin to distinguish the content of your thoughts from your ability to ‘witness’ your thoughts. 

The process takes place in three parts.  First, registering the features of the environment that at first glance strike you as being significance.   Then single out one or more features.  Reflection to trace any idea is the third phase and may take place at any time thereafter.  This latter follow up with memories is important for drawing conclusions. In summary, to meditate in the outdoors, experience everything with an open awareness, as if you’d never experienced anything like it before. Always, when the mind wanders and becomes caught up in thought about the details of what is heard or seen, simply bring it back to the experience of scanning nature with your ears and eyes.  Meditation can take place when you are sitting in a bus or walking in the woods full of light and shadows, or listening to the singing of birds or looking at the face of your friend or child.  Mindfulness meditation is one of the greatest arts in life -perhaps the greatest, and one cannot possibly learn it from anybody, that is the beauty of it. It has no technique and therefore no authority. 

4 Concentration destroys meditation 

The opposite of meditation is concentration.  Concentration is the process of resistance to being in a meditative state. Every educator knows what it means to concentrate. The educator is concerned with filling the brain with knowledge of various subjects so that the student will pass examinations and get a job. The student also has this in his mind. The educator and the student are encouraging each other in the form of resistance which is concentration on parts of the world that thereby becomes fragmented. So the teacher/student relationship builds the capacity to resist taking a holistic view, to exclude the broad horizon and gradually one becomes isolated in trying to cope with partial detail. According to Krishnamurti the concentration on partial detail is where meditation as taught in the West has gone wrong.  In both the East and the West, there are different schools of meditation, different methods and systems. There are systems which say “Watch the movement of your big toe, watch it, watch it, watch it”; there are other systems which advocate sitting in a certain posture, breathing regularly or practising awareness. All this is utterly mechanical.

Another method gives you a certain word and tells you that if you go on repeating it you will have some extraordinary transcendental experience. This is sheer nonsense to Krishnamurti. It is a form of self-hypnosis. 

“By repeating Amen or Om or Coca-Cola indefinitely you will obviously have a certain experience because by repetition the mind becomes quiet. It is a well known phenomenon which has been practised for thousands of years in India -Mantra Yoga it is called. By repetition you can induce the mind to be gentle and soft but it is still a petty, shoddy, little mind. You might as well put a piece of stick you have picked up in the garden on the mantelpiece and give it a flower every day. In a month you will be worshipping it and not to put a flower in front of it will become a sin. Meditation is not following any system; it is not constant repetition and imitation”. 

Concentration produces fixed notions about ideas and things and results in self importance that hurts us because it confines us to the narrow limitations of conditioned likes and dislikes.  The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says we have two alternatives: either we question our beliefs or we don’t.  Either we accept our fixed versions of reality or we begin to challenge them.  To practice staying open and curious and to practice dissolving our assumptions and beliefs is the best use of our human lives. Mindful-meditation demands an astonishingly alert and flexible mind to understand the totality of life in which every form of fragmentation has ceased. As soon as there is a fragmentation because of concentration, there is a conflict between incoming thoughts.  The objective is not control of thought to prevent fragmentation but to detached oneself from trying to explain the detail.  In this sense, “detachment” is not indifference or separation, but a process to view all the beauty and crassness in both the inner and outer world with a gently focused observation. 

5 Seeking experience is living in the past 

We all want experiences of some kind -the mystical experience, the religious experience, the sexual experience, the experience of having a great deal of money, power, position, domination. Above all, everything must be aimed at the experience of ‘having fun’.  As we grow older we may have finished with the demands of our physical appetites but then we demand wider, deeper and more significant experiences by taking various kinds of drugs for example. This is an old trick which has existed from time immemorial: chewing a piece of leaf or experimenting with the latest chemical to bring about a temporary alteration in the working of the brain cells, a greater sensitivity and heightened perception which give a semblance of reality. This demand for more and more experiences shows the inward poverty of man. We think that through experiences we can escape from ourselves but these experiences are conditioned by what we are. If the mind is petty, jealous, anxious, it may take the very latest form of drug but it will still see only its own little creation, its own little projections from its own conditioned background. Most of us demand completely satisfying, lasting experiences, which cannot be destroyed by thought. So behind this demand for experience is the desire for satisfaction.   To have some great satisfaction is a great pleasure; the more lasting, deep and wide the experience the more pleasurable it is, so pleasure dictates the form of experience we demand, and pleasure is the measure by which we evaluate the experience. Anything measurable is within the limits of thought and is apt to create illusion. You can have marvellous experiences and yet be completely deluded. You will inevitably see visions according to your conditioning; you will see Christ or Buddha or whoever you happen to believe in, and the greater a believer you are the stronger will be your visions, which are the projections of your own demands and urges. Experience is a bundle of memories responding to a challenge and it can respond only according to its background.  So you have to question not only the experience of another but your own experience. Every experience has already been experienced or you wouldn’t recognise it. You recognise an experience as being good, bad, beautiful, holy and so on according to your conditioning, and therefore the recognition of an experience must inevitably be a past experience of yourself or someone else.  So there is a fundamental truth, which is that a mind that is demanding, seeking, craving, for wider and deeper experience is a very shallow and dull mind because it lives always with its memories and their demands. Demand is born out of duality: “I am unhappy and I must be happy”. In that very demand that I must be happy is unhappiness. When one makes an effort to be good, in that very goodness is its opposite, evil. Everything affirmed contains its own opposite, and effort to overcome strengthens that against which it strives. When you demand an experience of truth or reality, that very demand is born out of your discontent with what is, and therefore the demand creates the opposite. And in the opposite there is what has been. Is it possible then to live in this world without this everlasting comparison? Surely it is? But one bas to find out for oneself and meditation is a useful practical technique. 

6 Pictures and meditation 

When meditating on a scene, we pay attention first because we have become aware of the cultural background of a view, which is followed by an expanded awareness of the attributes of the scene that catch the eye, jog the memory, and arouse emotional feelings.  Burgin, elaborates on this to link taking pictures with a camera to catching a scene with the eyes:

“The intelligibility of the photograph is no simple thing; photographs are texts inscribed in terms of what we may call ‘photographic discourse,’ but this discourse, like any other, engages discourses beyond itself, the ‘photographic text,’ like any other, is the site of a complex intertextuality, an overlapping series of previous texts ‘taken for granted’ at a particular cultural and historical conjuncture.” 

To take photographs, wrote Henri Cartier-Bresson, 

“is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. …  It is putting one’s head, one’s eyes and one’s heart on the same axis. …  It is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s originality.  It is a way of life.”


Barthes in Camera lucida (1984) distinguishes between the two phases of meditating on photographs by distinguishing what he calls studium and punctum.

 Studium, stands for the general, cultured interest one has in photographs. 

“It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally — this connotation is present in studium — that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.” 

Then the other element, the punctum, comes into play — the personal relation, the emotional/spiritual side. It occurs as a meditation when one is deeply touched by a picture. 

“… it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, and because the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points … A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me — but also bruises me, is poignant to me.” 

These words define photography as an ongoing meditative relationship to the world.  This was clear to Cartier-Bresson, who believed that photography was not merely a profession but a liberating engagement with life itself, the camera not just a machine for recording images but “an instrument of intuition and spontaneity

This is clearly the motivation that drives Daniel Peebles to photograph quiescent volcanoes; 

“ My landscapes are created through the meditation of being present, having no preconceived ideas about the work at hand. No waiting for the light to be right, because it always is. No waiting for the perfect cloud formation, because they all are. Ground I have tread upon scores of times previously is always new. These pictures are about my inner landscape as much as they are about the exterior, there are no beginnings or endings, only meditations upon the real world”. 

Generally speaking the intuitive meditative wellbeing that comes from viewing the environment and making pictures of it falls under the following six headings. 

        Wellbeing in the recognition of things represented. This, a large element with children and unsophisticated persons generally, is comparatively unimportant with cultivated adults. 

        Wellbeing aroused, as a result of previous associations, by the things represented; in short, “subject interest.” This takes innumerable forms. It is enough to mention interest in human or superhuman persons and events and agreeable past associations with landscape. 

        Wellbeing as sources of information regarding the notional outer and inner life of individuals and peoples, whether near or remote. 

        Wellbeing in the appreciation a the artist’s skill. 

        Wellbeing in the recognition of artistic kinship, eg.. of resemblance to other landscapes or the other work of a school or individual.  

        Wellbeing in the contemplation of beautiful or otherwise captivating form and colour. These meditative routes to wellbeing by making or viewing pictures are not experienced by all persons or by any one person at a single instant. Different persons differ widely in their susceptibility to these different types of emotion. But it all the pleasures enumerated are respectable and all worthy of cultivation to make and view pictures