The Deckchair Diaries – Spring 2013

The problem with writing a block or trying to be active on the myriad of social networking sites out there is you tend to “blogify” (or “twitterify” or “facebookify”, or “socialnetworkofthemomentify”) your life. You are constantly looking for ways to spin experiences into a pithy, fun or informative posts, comments or tweets. You start to treat (or should that be tweet?!) life as one long series of anecdotes rather than engaging fully with it. We rarely engage fully in our moment to moment experiences as it is, constantly looking forward in time (our most common, some could say “default” setting when we are not doing anything else is to project into the future. Notice how many times you daydream about what you are hoping or planning to do on a day to day basis – when I read about this in Claudia Hammond’s excellent exploration of how we perceive time “Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception” I made the effort to be mindful of how many times a day I projected forward. I was shocked! Even sitting in meditation I would lose myself in thoughts of what I was going to do once I finished. I was so used to it I didn’t even notice I was doing it until I was made aware of it) or wrapped up in a nostalgic glow of memories, or analysing what is going on with that constant voice in our heads. The advent of social networking as just added an extra layer to that, we now take an even further step back from moment to moment awareness and think “how will that look/sound/read as a blogpost/tweet/facebook update/etc.”

Recognising this behaviour in myself was one reason I stopped blogging for awhile. I had become a slave to “blogification” and rather than using it as a tool to engage more fully in slowing down, by making the effort to report and reflect on what I was doing and breaking that down into (hopefully) handing hints to help you, my lovely readers, I was finding myself becoming more disconnected and distracted by trying to convert my experiences into prose as they were happening, like some odd narrative from a cheap mystery novel.

There are two main schools of Zen, the Soto school and the Rinzai school. There are various differences in their approach, the main one being that the Soto school believe that enlightenment slow matures, or ripens like a fruit where the Rinzai school believe that enlightenment comes all of a sudden. The Rinzai school is the one most people think of when they think of Zen with it’s Koans and stories of instant enlightenment.

I used to study and sit with the Sanbo Kuodan school of Buddhism, which drew on both the classic traditions but leaned more towards the Rinzai school, with it’s use of Koans and it’s belief in “Kensho” or flashes of sudden enlightenment. So I alway expected “Kensho” or enlightenment to happen all at once.

I had flashes, but like Proust trying to hold onto the memory, they would run and hide as soon as I tried to focus on them. It all became very frustrating. I became demotivated and stopped studying.

Then a few years ago, I had a “revelation” (I cannot call it Kensho or enlightenment moment as it was never “validated” by a Zen teacher and it is easy to become self deluded if you do not draw on the experience of lineage). I was driving along one day (I really wish I could remember the exact date), it was a beautiful spring day, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, I was listening to Tom Petty on the stereo , I was eating a sandwich. The thought popped into my head that this was a pretty perfect moment. If I were to die now, I would go out on a high. Everything suddenly just dropped away. All memories, hopes, dreams and concerns just stopped. Dead. There was just stillness and pure awareness. It was only a few seconds, but left a lasting impression. I  finally understood that all that mattered was the present moment.
It wasn’t the mind blowing event I was expecting just a feeling of “oh there it is” like when you find something you have been looking for.

The second time it happened was on a flight back from Istanbul in May 2011. I don’t like flying. I spend the whole flight trying to hold the plan up by the armrest on my seat. We were circling Heathrow waiting to land and the anxiety was pounding away when I glanced out of the window and saw a plain circling below us, it totally distracted me with the thought of how rare it is to see a plain flying from above it. This lead me to another thought “Do I want my last moments on earth to be filled with terror or wonder?”.

From that I resolved to “feel as good as I a can in the present moment”. Not in a hedonistic way, there is a very big difference between living IN the present moment and living FOR the present moment. In fact, the exact opposite.

Since then I have found this experience ripening and the most interesting thing (for me) is the change in my behaviour without having to make any particular overt attempts to change other than be mindful and feel as good as I can.

In Buddhism there are two main “guides” to how we should carry out our moment to moment lives, the “5 Precepts” and the “Noble 8-fold Path”, these are lists of things we should try to.

Unlike the Western religious tradition, they are not commandments we must force ourselves to live by (and fail and feel guilty about), but are often interpreted that way when translated through our Western filter. When taken into the context of mindfulness you find that the more mindful you are of the present moment, the more you endeavour to “feel as good as you can in the present moment”, the more these “commandments” come naturally, they are less a demand and more a checklist to make sure you are heading in the right direction. The more I endeavour to be more mindful, the less I find I want to get off my face on booze, or eat junk food, the more I am compassionate of other people, the more I find I don’t need to be mean about other people to validate myself (The interesting thing I have noticed is when I am mean about other people, it comes from a place of self insecurity or jealousy. If you were happy with yourself and your life you wouldn’t need or want to criticise other people. In the politest and most compassionate sense, you wouldn’t care. It is why the Metta Bhavana meditation starts with loving kindest towards yourself).

Which takes me back to where I started with this post. Engaging fully with your life on a moment to moment basis. Being mindful of the now and improving your present moment sense of comfort, tranquility and serenity (which I am sure by now, you realise takes some forward planning).