Space Under my Chair – a Reflection on Freedom by Anna Ayse

Today’s reflection on Freedom is from Anna. Anna is an artist and has brought a visual perspective to the theme, which is both remarkable and ‘eye opening’.

Sculpture Bruce Nauman
Space Under my Chair, Bruce Nauman

The sculpture Space Under my Chair by Bruce Nauman is a playful as well as a powerful pointer to an essential quality of reality that we perpetually seem to overlook.
The conditioned mind is such that we see objects rather than the space that holds the objects and enables them to exist. The narrowed vision that focuses on objects has advantages when it comes to survival. The ability to separate out and identify an approaching tiger instantly out of all the visual clues can mean the difference between life and death. However, adopting the narrow vision of the survival mode as the default way of looking and perceiving is limiting innate freedom.
The sculpture Space Under my Chair is focusing the attention of the viewer on what is habitually ignored, the space that enables the object to exist. Be that literal space that holds chairs, buildings, trees, mountains, or Mind space that holds thoughts, feelings, sensations, sense perceptions. Our point of view narrows and focuses on objects to the exclusion of the most essential. It takes an artist to point out our limited view and make us aware of how we are conditioned to ignore the most fundamental element of reality, boundless space, limitless potential, present in every moment.

The conditioned mind calls space without objects, empty, void, nothing, that is no-thing. Yet empty space contains everything, either manifest or potentially, so nothing in fact equals everything.

Whether in literal space or in mind space, widening the narrow, object-oriented view and perceiving objects, phenomena, not in isolation but in the context of the wider reality that holds them, is innate freedom actualized. It is the source of all creativity.

Flower of Freedom

I hardly dare comment on our second post of the week, featuring the theme of Freedom. Reading Mo’s poem gave me shivers. I find it so beautiful and insightful.

Flower Of Freedom

When the voice of freedom calls,
there is no secret prison for me.
No landscape of mind, no survival identity
born out of conditioning and habit.

 

Do you keep the wild complexity of your
True Nature hidden, buried under fixed
boundaries of fears and
desires?

 

When you see me, is there a calling,
touching a sense of unknown freedom?
Begging you to walk an invisible labyrinth,
yet the fear holds you back.
There is a gateless gate.

 

I am like the morning star, blossoming in the light
of both the seer and the seen.
Growing from my Earths ancestors to blossom
and to blossom again, always becoming.
Such is Universal life.

 

Mo Henderson

Freedom!

Over the next few days, the Dew on the Grass team will be sharing articles, poems and artwork, on the theme of Freedom.  Each of us has presented our experience of Freedom from a slightly different perspective but all of the pieces reflect the seeking mind of the Buddhist practitioner. We hope that you enjoy reading them, and should you have reflections of your own on this topic, please do get in touch, via the contact page, or in a message via the Dew on the Grass Facebook page, by Monday the 28th of February, and we will be happy to share them. Please read our editorial guidelines, by clicking the ‘About’ button.

Musings 1

A couple of decades ago, it seemed that all the usual stresses and anxieties of life had coalesced for me into one focus. I became aware that I was suffering from severe claustrophobia. The feeling of being trapped is of course the antithesis of freedom. I found I was unable to go into places where my way out was not clear: caves, basements, the London underground in crowds, trains and planes, the backseat of two-door cars. I began to sleep with a knife when in my tent so that I could cut my way out through the fabric.

Retreats at Throssel became a challenge. When I mentioned to a monk that I wasn’t sure I could sleep in the Ceremony Hall he said, with some incredulity, ‘But we don’t have a larger space, Chris.’ I explained that it wasn’t the space around me as much as my ability to get out. And to get out of that room I would have to negotiate sleeping bodies, noisy doors, clattering stairways, deal with the fear of meeting the Night Guardian in the corridor, of not being supposed to be walking around. Thus it was that I found myself allowed to sleep in the Avalokiteshvara shrine, close to my exit route, next to plastic containers of human ashes, which was almost, but not quite, worse.

But it didn’t stop there. At home, panicked by being in bed, I would go out into the garden and stand and look at the stars. And suddenly I felt trapped on the planet. Unlike the fish which doesn’t know it is in the ocean, I knew that there was nowhere else that I could survive and that gravity tethered me to the earth. It sounds obvious, but for me, it was an experiential realisation that I am one with all things and not a separate being. I am not free to leave this planet, which provides me with the very means of my existence – the air I breathe, the food I eat. I remember RM Saido once saying ‘If you have difficulty grasping the concept of dependent origination, try not breathing for a while.’ I breathe because of the infinitely complex life of this planet. I am an earthling.

Musings 2

‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.’ Thus Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1755. And today, in 2022, I think perhaps we understand that we are not born free at all and really have no chance of ever attaining freedom if that is something that we seek. At birth, we bring with us our entire genetic make-up. Immediately, life starts to happen for us and we are affected by an infinity of sensations. We grow, we learn we relate and we become one of the indescribably complex beings that comprise the human race. Within that framework of my life and being, I have the illusion that I am free. But in reality, I have very little control over my life. Simply to start with, I cannot really affect my physical environment. In the words of the Tom Lehrer song – ‘Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.’ Except that of course I have no choice.

But beyond that, I am aware that every single thing I do and think is because I am me. I am pretty much unable to think ‘outside of myself’ because my thought patterns and my opinions are the product of my genetic nature and my experience. Even my wish to do ‘that which is good to do’ or to ‘do the next thing’ arises because of a fortunate concatenation of circumstance and predisposition that has led me to this Buddhist path. My human mind allows me to consider alternative paths and alternative courses of action, but I am deluded if I think I really have the freedom to choose to do anything that is ‘out of character.’

Chris Yeomans

Nostalgia’s not what it used to be

The late, Reverend Master Alexander Hardcastle, when he was prior of Telford Buddhist priory, often said,’ Nostalgia is not what it used to be’, and then would chuckle at the irony of his remark. He may have said this in the company of others, but my recollection is that we were usually alone, working on some project or other. I would laugh with him (though maybe not as heartily) and I knew what he meant. Nostalgia, which is essentially a sentimental view of the past and reflects discontent with the present, holds less sway over us once we become regular meditators. We become far more satisfied with our present reality, however difficult and painful that might feel, at times.

Remembrances of the past come and go. They are part of our brain’s natural function and can be helpful both spiritually and practically, in the everyday world. What happened in the past is part of who we are now; part of our current experience. The physical and spiritual realignment of the heaps of our being, in time and space, create a new reality, moment by moment. Within this shift, our memories float along with us.

Those that feel painful, we may shrug aside (although the cells of our body will still remember them unless we have done significant work on ourselves). Or we may do the exact opposite, and hold them tightly, in fear of what would happen if we let them go. Conversely, we may hold onto memories of good times, idealise them, hold them up as the epitome of existence. Of course, there are many permutations of how this might manifest itself.

As a nation, we are prone to do the latter. Hence the success of political promises to make our country ‘Great Again’ as if, in some perfect past, all ills were virtues and we stood, as a united and homogenous body, a paragon of unity and virtue, which was lost to a perceived evil, along the way, and to which, with the ‘right’ political direction, we can return. This is a deluded notion, of course. The world, its nations, and individual people exist in a constant state of flux within which, what we judge as good and evil continually arise, like ripples on a much deeper ocean.

In my younger years, when I was focused on work, family and the setting up of a priory – the time of life referred to by the social-psychologist, Erikson, as a time of ‘Generativity’, when we are at our most productive – I had no inclination to look back. More recently, having lost several of the older members of my family, during the pandemic, I have enjoyed reminiscences of those treasured people that I called, mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, teacher and friend. Some memories might even be termed ‘nostalgic’, having a sentimental or ‘rosy’ quality to them, mostly they have been part of a rite of passage, a celebratory ceremony of the mind, and have included, of course, thoughts of you, dear Rev. Alexander. I am grateful for them all.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh – in gratitude for a life well spent.

Image

The internet is currently flooded with tributes and reminiscences of his life, so I will not try to recreate them here. Suffice to say, I feel drawn to reread some of his books and, having lost six people from my life, during these past pandemic years, this quotation, posted by a Buddhist friend to Facebook, this morning, lifted me out of a fog of melancholy and raised my eyes to the sky. Thank you!

“One day as I was about to step on a dry leaf, I saw the leaf in the ultimate dimension. I saw that it was not really dead, but that it was merging with the moist soil in order to appear on the tree, the following spring, in another form. I smiled to the leaf and said, ‘You are pretending’. Everything is pretending to be born and pretending to die, including the leaf.

The Buddha said, “When conditions are sufficient, the body reveals itself, and we say the body exists. When conditions are not sufficient, the body cannot be perceived by us, and we say the body does not exist.” The day of our death is the day of our continuation in many other forms. If you know how to touch your ancestors in the ultimate dimension, they will always be there in you, smiling. This is a deep practice.

The ultimate dimension is a place of coolness, peace and joy. It is not a state to be attained after you “die”. You can touch the ultimate dimension right now by breathing, walking and drinking your tea in mindfulness.

Everything and everyone is dwelling in Nirvana, in the Kingdom of God,”

Professor Thich Nhat Hanh – Living Buddha, Living Christ (1995)

Thich Nhat Hanh

Saturday Sleeves – or responding to changes

Saturday SleevesSaturday sleeves are long knitted cuffs, so-called because they are meant for slipping on when you need to do outside chores, on a chilly Saturday morning. They have also proved useful as a way of providing warmth to my husband’s hands, which are wracked with arthritis and unable to take regular gloves and mittens.

Adapting the simple pattern to accommodate the different size and shape of the hands, one glove was knitted on circular needles 4.5mm (32cm length), with 43 stitches and was worked (knitting every row) until it measured  25cm long, and the other on 5mm needles, with 50 stitches, until it measured 15.5cm long. I kept the tension loose so that the finished cuff didn’t drag over his painful joints. The hands and knitting both have flaws. Yet both are perfect just as they are.

I’m pleased to say, he reports that they keep him ‘toastie!’

 

The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future

Chrismas stars and ballsEach year, when I take down the Christmas decorations and pack them away, I write a motivational note to my future self encouraging me to look up, chill out and enjoy the festive season. That might sound a bit crazy, but the truth is I have an anxiety about Christmas that borders on a phobia. The note is usually brief – ‘Relax and enjoy!’ Or ‘You can do this!’ – instructions meant to cut through the tension. Then I seal it in the box with the baubles and store it away, only to be read when I unpack it again the following December.

I have been in Buddhist training for most of my adult life. Practice helps me to understand why I am the way I am, accept the way I am, and illumines the path to necessary change. Like many of us, I have weathered some very human storms. Through Buddhism, I have come to understand that whilst our suffering is caused by our conditioning and attachments, it is also the path to liberation. I know this to be true. I know how to be still. I know how to direct myself. But then there’s Christmas!

While others happily and excitedly prepare for this seasonal event, I become increasingly aware of my building anxiety. I pledge to pace myself, take things steady. There are presents to buy and wrap, cards to write and send, decorations to put up, Christmas food to order and prepare. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Yet, as I go through the motions, a sadness descends like a grey mist and even though I make lists and organise myself so that I can get through the preparations in small, manageable chunks, I seem to be ruled by the limbic brain and struggle not to spin into utter panic.

Knowing this, I write the notes in acknowledgement of this unconverted state of suffering. Christmas Past, speaks to Christmas Future and tries to reassure this fearful being that it is not a big deal, yet for me, karmically, it really is!

Christmas 2020 was different. In a state of lockdown, due to Covid-19, the Government allowed us Christmas Day to be with our families but only three households could mix. I have three grown-up children, who usually pile back into the old family home, with their partners and children, so to choose just two households to join us for Christmas, leaving one of them out, was not something that I would countenance, even though one of my daughters volunteered to stay away. So everyone stayed at home. Things were quiet and low key and, without the usual hustle and bustle, I had time to ask more deeply just exactly what my difficulty with Christmas is.

As a result of doing this, I read a very different note to myself this Christmas. It did not chide me to be happy. It spoke not so much of a dislike of Christmas but the ambivalent feelings that it invokes. The idealism of all our hopes and dreams being pinned onto one day in the calendar year and the uncomfortable, unsatisfactoriness of that. It spoke of the love of sharing with others, set against the concern that I have for the homeless and those spending Christmas alone and how the homeless and the lonely are homeless and lonely all year round but somehow, on this day, it feels so much worse.

It spoke of how I found myself tearful and fearful for turkeys and pigs in their blankets, whilst also thumbing through the BBC Good Food Magazine and planning lunch. It spoke of the tension between the wish to be generous to others and a tendency towards excess that does not represent ‘The Middle Way’. Christmas has a quality to it that can seem to promise eternity, whilst slyly leading us away from it if we are not careful.

But the note also pointed out that, in my reflections, I had ‘touched that tender, soft spot of being’ and understood that the basis of my sadness and suffering is love. Christmas has a way of drawing up wistful melancholia that is still present but easy to miss at other times of the year. It is good to acknowledge that, to investigate it.

There is no note in the bauble box for me to read, next year. I thought about it but the need was gone. These missives have served their purpose. Christmas will continue to press my buttons, I have no doubt but I can see some of the causes, if not all and I will continue to do my Christmas training, with open-hearted curiosity, however long it takes.

Dewdrops and Dragonflies

Dew on the Grass has been a presence, on the internet, for over two years now. The purpose of the blog has always been to provide a creative meeting space, not only for the four Buddhist friends who founded it but for a wider community of people, not necessarily Buddhists, who wish to capture the essence of the lives they live in photographs, artworks, and words that express the path that leads to the Heart. Whilst we never intended to post every day or even every week, we must admit it’s been a little quiet around here, lately. That could be because we simply don’t have anything to say, right now, and that, of course, is just fine but blogs, like any other area of life, can sometimes suffer inertia that needs further investigation.

For my own part, I have asked the question of myself,’ Why am I not writing?’, without any particular expectation of a reply. I am aware that days get ‘eaten’ by distraction: some necessary, like the practicalities of putting meals on tables (or lap trays, if truth be told), of cleaning, taking care of business, and the like, and some that arise from within myself, like the voice of a chattering child, bringing disruption to ‘flow’; shaking the calm stillness of mind.

I am not alone in this, apparently. A recent edition of Maria Popova’s, Brain Pickings, draws attention to Mary Oliver’s essay, from her book ‘Upstreaming’, entitled “Of Power and Time”. In this essay, which explores the need to give space for the creative, Oliver observes that whilst there are practical interruptions to creativity, ‘ …. just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.’

Popova comments that: ‘Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding: ‘There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.’ Of course, the Buddhist reader will recognize this ‘interrupter’ or ‘distracter’ as ‘monkey mind’; the mind that swings and jumps and causes mischief, rather than ‘settle’. It has been experienced by meditators and creatives alike since the dawn of time and recognizing the ‘mischief maker’, looking it in the eye, significantly reduces its power and energy.

At the same time, there is, I think, a difference between what can be identified as the ‘intimate interrupter’ and the ‘inner daydreamer’. The interrupter is a saboteur of peace, clarity, and creativity, whilst daydreaming, in my experience, is a much more helpful, creative, and meditative state, whereby thoughts and sensations are allowed to drift in and out of consciousness, like dragonflies resting and drinking on the surface of a pond, drawing from it and then departing.

We called this blog site, ‘Dew on the Grass’, partly because of its association with Dogen’s ‘Rules for Meditation’, which is dear to our hearts but, as our ‘About’ page describes: ‘The nature of dew is that it appears in the morning, glistens for an instant and then disappears. Yet it always raises the spirits when you catch sight of it and it will always appear again’. Dew, dragonflies, the analogies are endless but all need the right conditions to develop, delight, and inform us. All are born of a state of natural solitude and harmony, which requires a certain personal effort to protect it.

Without judgment, without harshness, I keep these images in mind, and whilst there may be many practical interruptions that keep me from posting as regularly as I would wish – and are, to a large extent, out of my control – I think I very much owe it to myself, as well as to our loyal readership, to practice a little more diligently, the silencing of the ‘intimate interrupter’ and the development of the ‘inner daydreamer’. Recognition is always the first step, application is the second – on this last rainy Saturday of July, perhaps I have made a start.

If you have something that you would like to post – artwork, photography, or writing- simply contact us, using the ‘ Contact’ button.

If you would like to read more of Maria Popova’s blog, here is the link:

The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life

It Ain’t What you Do, It’s What it Does to You

Karen Richards

At 65 years old, I have travelled far less than the average Westerner, of a similar age. It’s not that I have an aversion to travelling, far from it, but both the cost and the lack of opportunity have prohibited me from going very far and certainly not often. And yet, I do not feel that I have missed out on the richness of human experience.

Travel may broaden the mind but everyday experience surely deepens it. Or, more accurately, opens us up to that which is Universal, if we approach each day, openheartedly. I count myself fortunate to have experienced the many joys of living an ordinary life, right here, on my doorstep.

I first came across this poem by Simon Armitage, now our Poet Laureate, around twenty years ago, when I was teaching GCSE English in a local secondary school. I heard him recite it live, at The Grand Theatre Wolverhampton, when I accompanied my class to a special poetry reading, based on the anthology for the course. The truth of it struck me, immediately.

It Ain’t What You Do, It’s What It Does To You
Simon Armitage

I have not bummed across America
with only a dollar to spare, one pair
of busted Levi’s and a bowie knife.
I have lived with thieves in Manchester.*

I have not padded through the Taj Mahal,
barefoot, listening to the space between
each footfall picking up and putting down
its print against the marble floor. But I

skimmed flat stones across Black Moss on a day
so still I could hear each set of ripples
as they crossed. I felt each stone’s inertia
spend itself against the water; then sink.

I have not toyed with a parachute cord
while perched on the lip of a light-aircraft;
but I held the wobbly head of a boy
at the day centre, and stroked his fat hands.

And I guess that the tightness in the throat
and the tiny cascading sensation
somewhere inside us are both part of that
sense of something else. That feeling, I mean.

*Armitage was formerly a probation officer, in Manchester.

After I had written this blog piece, I happened upon a quote from Virginia Woolf’s, The Common Reader. In essence, they are saying the same thing, if differently. I love both. What do you think?

“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.”

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