Live in the present – but it’s so hard

Living, as I do, with a partner whose brain is deteriorating is fruitful territory for reflections about life, training and relationships.  My husband and I got together six years ago but he has, now, no memory of anything much of that whole time.  

On a minor level, his condition makes daily living challenging.  He can’t actually change what he does, since to change your behaviour means that you have to remember what it is that you wanted to do different.  So he goes on making the same ‘mistakes’ in small things, like for example where to put things away.  But on a more important level (or it seems more important to me), he actually doesn’t retain much information about me either and regularly asks me things about my past life that I have told him a lot of times. This makes me feel ‘not known’.  And yet he is certain (and I do accept this as a truth) that he knows me very well.  Which raises the question – what or whom is it that he knows?  It’s certainly not the sum of my history, not my ‘stories’, and he seems to have a ‘knowing’ that is separate from my stories.  Which is a surprise to me as I would normally say that, without our stories, we are not the people we believe ourselves to be. 

So J doesn’t know any of my ‘stories’, but, more than that, of course he doesn’t know any of ‘our stories’ either.  He knows this is a loss for him and he feels sad about it.  And it is a loss for me, as I realise more and more what comfort and pleasure there is in looking back at good times and re-living shared moments.  Thus a walk with J very often starts with the words ‘I have never been here before in my life’.  It all becomes a new source of pleasure for him.  But for me, walking beside him, it is also a palimpsest of all the other times we have done that walk together, and inevitably that includes the sadness of remembering how different it was, maybe two or three years ago.  

For me these days, much of life is a return to familiar and loved places, and for him it is a host of new experiences.  Except that it’s not as easy as that, as he is aware of all that is lost in terms of memories.  As well as being sad, it also makes me reflect, and raises for me the question of why we do things at all.  Big events – our wedding, his 80th birthday party, holidays, trips, visits – have all gone.  I guess they were pleasurable for him at the time, but they have now simply disappeared for him.  And it so often comes to me to recognise how much of our everyday conversation refers back to a past event.  I trip and stumble, trying to start a perfectly innocuous exchange, to talk about something and then suddenly I am asked ‘Do I know her?’ ‘Who is that?”  Even trying to make future plans runs into the same challenges. ‘Have we been there?’ ‘Did we do that before?”

And so I try to sit still, breath slowly, think ‘This is the moment.  This is all we have.’  And who can deny this?  Except that as humans, in our minds at least, we do have memories of the past and they do inform our future.  And life without memory of that past is a challenge to all of us.

Rooted Stillness by Paul Taylor

“Rooted Stillness”, courtesy of Paul Taylor

The stillness of this scene surprises me. So much not in view. The clouds’ cover being blown, hide-and-seeking sun, me chasing shadows, and, roots. Here the bright field and dignified tree. And I wonder what part have walls to play.

The photograph was taken on a short walk not far from Lancaster, in the direction of the Yorkshire Dales – I was really struck by the tree’s rootedness, the fast-changing light,  the illumined and cloud-shaded field, all flowing with the wind, and a quality of stillness within it all.  I was fortunate the wind, clouds and  light were as they were. How to do it justice, if indeed possible?  How to catch the wind, as Donovan, a singer-songwriter when I was young, would say. 

Paul Taylor

What is Enlightenment?

By Charlie Holles

I was recently reading something by Great Master Dogen. I would like to quote it first and then share my feelings and the insights that seemed to arise. It is taken from ‘Being-Time’, A Practitioner’s Guide to Dogen’s Shobogenzo Uji by Shinshu Roberts.
Dogen tells the story of a student’s progress in ‘Zuimonki’ (Record of Things Heard) prefaced with this simile:
An ancient has said, “Associating with a good person is like walking through the mist and dew; though you will not become drenched, gradually your robes will become damp. This means that if you become familiar with a good person, you will become good yourself without being aware of it.”
In the main story, a young man was a student of Master Gutei. This student didn’t seem to realise what he was learning or practicing. Dogen comments, “a boy who attended Master Gutei, without noticing when he was learning or when he was practicing, realised the Way because he served as a personal attendant to the master who had been practicing for a long time.” In the course of attending to Master Gutei, he attained realisation.
………the student was not aware he was being trained. He probably spent his time making the master’s bed and fetching tea. Yet these activities, in accord with Master Gutei’s instruction, created his passage from student to master.
I think we often over-intellectualise about enlightenment, realising the truth, however we put it. In my own case, as a hippie in the 70’s and a then devotee of an Indian guru, I developed all sorts of notions about what this state would be. Many were fanciful, although they were part of the journey that brought me to Buddhism. When I took Jukai, 30 years ago, I still carried a lot of these ideas and expectations about how my Buddhist practice would or should unfold. Gradually I have shed most of them as they caused me quite a lot of suffering.
Dogen emphasised that meditation is the foundation of our practice. But he also made it clear that we must manifest whatever that teaches us in our daily life; in our actions from moment to moment. We do that by living simply from one moment to the next, doing whatever is good to do in response to whatever presents itself to us. It is not enough to sit on our cushion and retreat from the world.
My life used to be full, hectic, some would say glamorous. I travelled all over the world. I went on Buddhist pilgrimage to India. I did exotic things and so on. Now being retired, my life is much simpler, in part because my health won’t let me live as before. I do some voluntary work in a primary school each week; I have many more still days, perhaps just reading or sitting quietly; I work in the garden at the social housing complex where I live; I have interaction with the other residents.
Slowly I am understanding that realisation can simply be wherever and whenever I am. There are fleeting moments when my ego and discriminatory mind are quiet; I am right with what I am doing and the person I am with and I have no intruding desires for something other. Maybe that is a moment of enlightenment – I don’t know.
What I do know is that slowly I am letting go of wanting the ‘flashing lights and rainbows in the sky’ that once might have been what I thought my goal should be! Perhaps illumination is akin to cleaning one’s spectacles. The view doesn’t radically change but everything is clearer and sharper around the edges. I try simply to be and to be content with that. As Dogen teaches, Buddha Nature is our essence therefore we are already ‘realised’. It is just that we allow our focus to be on the dualistic world so for most of the time we simply do not live in and from what we truly are.

Poem After the Retreat – Not Two

Photograph by Kathleen Campbell

by Kathleen Campbell

The self feeds on desire
However noble.

The self puts the self down
And puffs the self up.

The habits of many years
Seem hard to undo.

Yet what else is there
But ongoing training?

Transcendent and immanent
Are not opposites.
Through this

We free ourselves
From suffering.

Silent Illumination

Early morning by the River Trent at Attenborough Nature Reserve – photograph by Tom Kirwan

“In darkness it is most bright, while hidden it is all the more manifest.

The crane dreams in the wintry mists. The autumn waters flow far into the distance.“

From the Guidepost of Silent Illumination

Zen Master Hongzhi, trans. Taigen  Daniel Leighton with Yi Wu

Attenborough, April 2019.

Walking with Alice

Editorial note: The author of this poem has motor neurone disease. He used to enjoy his walking holidays with his wife, Alice.

Alice needed a rest after nine months of lockdown and care as my functions melted away.


A hurried phone call as she explored north Derbyshire

“I only want to do this walk with you”


The shock of our temporary mutual isolation
The foresight of the end of this story.

Tom Kirwan

Singing, Breathing, Connecting – Karen Richards

Along with many other socially based activities that used to be done ‘in the flesh’, since the Coronavirus pandemic, our local Sunday morning Sangha meeting is now done via Zoom. Conducting our lives on the internet can have its limitations but there is also a unique quality to it, in terms of staying connected, that more conventional methods lack. Obviously, a phone, tablet or other form of compatible technology is needed and it helps to have enough IT ‘know-how’ to troubleshoot any minor technical difficulties but aside from that, anyone can join in, making it accessible to all.

Recently, I have been taking it in turns to precent at these meetings. The precentor’s function is to facilitate the singing of the scriptures along with striking the gongs to signal the offering of incense and striking the inkin or hand bell to signal the bowing, which helps to harmonise the ceremony and keep it flowing. When we are all together, in the same room, there is plenty of opportunity for the precentor to take a breath because once the scripture is underway the congregation carries it forward. The congregation will be chanting together online, of course, but the difference is that because of potential feedback, people’s microphones are muted and the only voice that can be heard is that of the precentor.

It’s an interesting experience singing on your own, knowing that others are listening to you but not being able to hear them back. There is a feeling of being exposed, a self-consciousness, and it’s a challenge to get the breathing right, so that you don’t suddenly find yourself gasping for air. As a result, I have become much more aware of my breath, the function of breathing and how the breath is affected by any emotion that I may be feeling – that is any residual emotion that may already be there and those that arise during the ceremony. The latter sometimes applies if the words of a particular scripture touches me (this happened during the recitation of The Scripture of Great Wisdom, shortly after my mother had died) or if I am concerned that someone might bang the front door and affect the sound, as has happened on more than one occasion. In short, I find this offering both a joy and a challenge.

Sometimes, it’s good just to accept the foibles and idiosyncrasies of both the situation and yourself but, trying to get it as ‘right’ as I could, I decided to get some online singing lessons, not to try to be ‘perfect’ but so I could understand the technicalities of breathing and singing and maybe relax a bit more.

At my first lesson, the teacher spent most of the time getting me to stand properly, become aware of all of the tiny muscles in my head and face and relax my jaw. She also asked me to observe the bodily sensations that arise from humming, as opposed to blowing – closed mouth v open mouth. It was helpful and I was grateful but once I’d listened and practiced a few times, she said, ‘Really what you’re there for is to support other people. You need to adapt your tone and pitch to help them. Pow!

Of course, it isn’t always possible, when you are connecting via the internet, to know exactly what other people’s needs are but the principle of moving from awareness of yourself, to awareness of others and their needs was a bit of a game changer. Strangely, it made me relax.

Dogen said, To know yourself is to forget yourself’. I thought it interesting that in Buddhist training we start by becoming aware of ourselves and what is going on with us. Then when we have done this for awhile, the barriers soften and we see our connection with others more clearly and can harmonise.

I don’t think that all the singing lessons in the world will prevent me from continuing to find precenting and managing my breath both a joy and a challenge but that is the point, I guess. It’s not meant to be easy, is it?

Increasing not decreasing not?

Veil nebula-Hubble Space Telescope
Veil Nebula – Courtecy Hubble Space Telescope

I very much enjoy listening to a BBC Radio 3 progamme called ‘Private Passions’ presented by the composer Michael Berkeley. It’s a sort of upmarket Desert Island Discs which you can find via the wonderful BBC Sounds App.  A few weeks ago, it featured Patricia Wiltshire, who turned out to be a rather engaging forensic ecologist.  I was struck by what she had to say about her beliefs, which were emphatically not religious.  

“The only life after death is what you leave behind, which becomes incorporated into life. So you are decomposed, you break down into your constituent little bits.  The energy all drains away because it dissipates.  You can’t do much about that. But the bits of you that are left, and all the molecules that make up your body are dissipated and then they are recycled.  So you will be recycled.  So that’s the only life after death that I can imagine.  I don’t have any spiritual feelings.  (…) This is the natural cycle and of course there is only so much matter, so if it weren’t recycled we couldn’t have birth at all.”

It was the throwaway phrase ‘There’s only so much matter,’ which set me wondering, as it seemed to resonate with the words in ‘The Scripture of Great Wisdom’.  The matter which makes up this planet must indeed be ‘Increasing not, decreasing not’.  And all things (being pure or empty) ‘are neither born nor do they wholly die.’ 

And so we talk of finite resources; we say that our planet is a ‘closed system.’.  And, I wondered, with the ever increasing numbers of human beings (matter) does this inevitably mean fewer of other beings (also matter.)  Thus as we watch animals, plants, birds, insects disappearing from the earth, is it because there isn’t enough matter left for them to be born and sustained?  And as we convert resources into non-recyclable materials like plastics and burn fossil fuels and convert them into damaging gases, are we gradually and not so gradually reducing the amount of matter that can sustain life and putting it into forms which are effectively dead? Such that in the end there can be no birth?

Perhaps this is all obvious, but that little phrase somehow gave me a different sort of insight into what is happening.  It didn’t really cheer me up.

Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I have always found the Serenity Prayer quite beautiful. It was written by the American theologian, pastor and social commentator, Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr could be called a ‘middle way thinker’ who, throughout his life, reflected on, wrote about and tackled some of the most contentious socio-political and religious issues in American history. Several US presidents, including Barack Obama, have credited Niebuhr as having influenced their own thinking.

The original prayer was much longer, with courage to act on change coming before serene acceptance of things that cannot be changed but the central message has remained the same. In the 1950s, the prayer was adapted and adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and it became a cornerstone of the organisation’s recovery programme for those struggling with addiction. It has had many other incarnations, with people changing the wording to fit a particular purpose and audience.

As a Buddhist, I do not use the word ‘God’, for instance – or at least I conceptualise ‘God’ differently – so instead of viewing the qualities of serenity, courage and wisdom as attributes outside of ourselves to be ‘granted’, I see this trio as a state of being that is naturally occurring and can be found through deep reflection and which we align our body and mind with, through Buddhist Practice.

Niebuhr’s treatise, in its original form, began: ‘Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other’, which points to the openness needed to face both the events happening in our lives and the wider world and our willingness to look at our reaction to them. To change what must be changed is just as much a call to work for self-change, as it is to act compassionately and responsibly to change the world around us.

In the earlier version, courage came before serenity. Is this because serenity is synonymous with reflection and this has to be our first step? The Merriam Webster Dictionary associates serenity with ‘depth of ocean and expanse of sky: clear and free of storms and shining bright’ and gives the descriptive metaphor ‘steady the moon, serene in glory’ to exemplify this. This is imagery familiar to a Buddhist and points to the source of Truth and Truth itself.

And yet, in this regard, we cannot separate courage and serenity. We need courage to seek serenity and serenity to find courage. Intrinsic in both is wise activism and acceptance.

The prayer has a second, longer verse, which begins:

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace

These words sit easily with me as a Buddhist. They are the essence of Practice. In living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, fully accepting both joy and difficulty as equals, we find peace.

However you wish to tap into the prayer’s message, it is awe-inspiring to me that, despite various adaptations, words that were first spoken from a pulpit in 1940s America, have stood the test of time. This, I conclude, is because the message is both simple and True and by ‘True’ I mean that, irrespective of their religious origins or which version of the prayer is used, the words align with a universal honesty about the human condition and how we can approach the days of our lives.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Niebuhr

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/serene