Friday, 2 September 2016

Mindfulness and family

The Buddha talked about four stages of enlightenment. The first he called "stream enterer", describing someone who sees through the delusion of self and no longer sees themselves as being separate from the rest of the Universe. In Zen you "enter the stream" when you have your first kensho – when you see your true nature.

Push-pull factors, desire & aversion


The next two stages describe someone who has greatly reduced and then completely eradicated those things that act as push-pull factors in our lives (i.e. things that we're attracted to and averse to, wanting things to go "our way") and any feelings of ill will (including hate and anger). The final stage is to see through all delusions and attain the highest enlightenment.

So in this description, someone could've entered the stream (seen through the illusion of our self being a separate entity that needs constant protection), without dealing with any of those other things related to sensual desire and aversion. Basically that person could still be a pretty horrible person! It's rare, but it could happen.

At this point it's important to point out that being free from those push-pull, desire factors doesn't mean we stop liking or disliking things – we still, for example, like hot sunny days and dislike cold wet days. But the difference is we're totally ok when it's cold and wet. It's no problem.

Seeing our true nature and entering the stream is not that hard to do. In Zenways we run 3-day retreats aimed at precisely this. But reducing and eventually eradicating our desires and aversions – well, that's something else entirely! This is the part I want to focus on here. Whether or not you've reached that first stage it's so important, and in my understanding has a lot to do with mindfulness.

Spending time with family


I've just spent almost two weeks with my mum – probably the longest continuous time I've spent with her for years! She's been living in Stockholm for more than 10 years and this year she decided she wanted to move back. The move date was last weekend. I went over and spent a few days with her in Stockholm helping her prepare things, then we spent 3 days on the road driving back with her cats, then I spent a few more days with her in her new house in England.


On the road with mum's cats


Because she's disabled there are some things she can do fine, other things she can do, but not quite as you would, and other things she just can't do. Maybe everyone is actually like this. The trick is to let her do what she can do, be ok with the things she does not quite as you would, and jump in with the things she can't do.

As we arrived at her new place in England, I felt a rising sense of wanting to do more to help her. Lots needed to be done that she simply couldn't do. This feeling kept rising and actually felt like it accelerated as the days went by. It got to the point where I realised I wasn't doing some of the things I enjoy doing because I perceived her need as being greater. Of course that was just my perception – a delusion. It had nothing to do with her. I was being sucked in to the drama of the situation to the detriment of my internal balance.

As I'm sure you know, family members have a particular ability to press your buttons like no-one else can! They wind you up! By definition that phrase means the effect is cumulative. Lots of little things that slightly annoy you or frustrate you literally wind you up until you blow up over something quite trivial.

In both these situations, mindfulness is absolutely key.

Mindfulness

If we can be aware of each little thing that annoys you as it arises then in each situation we can make a choice – to acknowledge and allow that thing without judgement, simply letting it go, or you express the emotion(s) that arise because of it. If we do this truly and honestly then we don't hold onto anything and there's no cumulative build up.

Of course discerning if it's appropriate to express your feelings in that moment or whether to hold your tongue and mention it later also requires mindfulness. And discerning when you're holding on/repressing an emotion because you think it's not appropriate to express it (at all/to that person) also needs mindfulness.

The original translation of the Pali word "sati" (which nowadays is translated to "mindfulness") is "recollection" or "remembering". Remembering to stay rooted in the sensations and feelings of the present moment without being carried away into worries and anxieties about some fantasised future. Remembering that you are not a separate being with a separate self that needs protecting – you are actually not separate from the other person or indeed the whole Universe. Getting annoyed and irritated at something stems from the delusion of a separate self.

Another analogy for the stages of enlightenment that Daizan often uses is that of cleaning a very dirty window. It starts off so dirty that no light can get through. As we start to practice, we start cleaning one tiny part of the window. Kensho is when that first shaft of light breaks through. The next stages represent more and more cleaning and more and more of the light coming through. It's all the same light, but there's just more of it. More of us comes into the light.

The result of all of this is that I feel my relationship with mum is much easier than it was. There's a sense of flow in the relationship and we can have fun together! I can love her more fully, and better appreciate the love between us. So it's well worth it!



I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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