Have just been reading this interview with Stephen Porges Ph.D., who has done fascinating work on the neurobiology of stress and panic. Particularly important implications here for people with chronic anxiety and patterns of disharmony in breath / digestion.

It’s not related to a cognitive process. It’s a physiological reaction that involves the nervous system. It’s not a conscious reaction; most people who feel that way would rather not feel that way. They just can’t turn it off.

What we often do when we’re stressed or anxious is to distract ourselves or create novelty. We’ll say, ‘Let’s go to the park! Let’s do something different!’ But what we need to understand is that the nervous system is really requesting familiarity and predictability, which is a metaphor for safety.

Leave A Comment, Written on October 28th, 2015 & filed under

Tibetan Buddhists divide Buddhism into three paths or vehicles (yanas): hinayana, mahayana and vajrayana. The most controversial definition is that of hinayana, which has unfortunately degraded into a lot of dogmatic name-calling over the centuries. Some factions within Tibetan Buddhism have muddied the waters by using the term to describe the vipassana practices of South-East Asian Buddhism. The simple momentary concentration developed within the pure vipassana practice lends itself to a more internally expressed form of liberation. Some people enjoy the intellectual exercise of exploring the contrast between this internally expressed transcendence vs the more flamboyant “crazy-wisdom” developed within the vajrayana. However to label such equanimity as “suppression” or “renunciation”, or to group it with the various ascetic practices that predate the time of Gautama Buddha, is to misunderstand the deep insight and compassionate joy that it entails. In part, these experiences are promoted by the very purity and simplicity with which the vipassana techniques approach reality — taking insight from the absolute minutiae of each occurring spontaneous moment. As I’ve repeatedly been taught, and often remind myself, true equanimity is actually the exact opposite of indifference.

It’s worth mentioning in passing, just to defend further the South East Asian traditions, the provenance of their scriptures, also known as the “Pali Canon”. This is the traditional collection of the Buddha’s teachings and Commentaries, in the same language (Pali) as the Buddha himself spoke 2500 years ago. They were originally passed down orally for 500 years or so, before being written down, and represent the most direct line of teachings that Gautama passed on to the world. Most of these teachings are in fact subsumed within the vajrayana. The main difference lies in the fact that the vajrayana presents an evolution of thought that continues to this day as a living tradition, whereas the Pali Canon aims for historical purity and relying on the undiluted teachings of the original Buddha. This fact has been established, verified and agreed upon definitively by historians of both East and West.

Leaving aside all of that, I found this lovely and intriguing visual representation of the differences at the website of a temple near my home.

To illustrate the differences taught in the various yanas [i.e., paths], Dudjom Rinpoche always used to recount the story of the poisonous plant. The plant is a symbol for emotional defilements or negativity. A group of people discover that a poisonous plant is growing in their backyard. They begin to panic, as they recognize that this is very dangerous. So they try to cut down the plant. This is the approach of renunciation, which is taught in Hinayana as the method to eradicate the ego and the negative emotions.

Another group of people arrive, and, realizing that the plant is dangerous, but that simply cutting it will not be sufficient since its roots remain to sprout anew, they throw hot ash or boiling water over the roots to prevent the plant from ever growing again. This is the approach of the Mahayana, which applies the realization of emptiness as the antidote of ignorance, the root of ego and negativity.

The next group of people to appear on the scene are the doctors, and when they see this poison they are not alarmed; on the contrary, they are very pleased, since they have been looking for this particular poison. They know how to transform the poison into medicine rather than destroying it. This is the tantric approach of the Vajrayana, which does not abandon the negative emotions, but through the power of transformation uses their energy as a vehicle to bring realization.

Finally, a peacock lands, and dances with joy when it sees the poison. It immediately consumes the poisonous plant and turns it into beauty. It is a Tibetan belief that the peacock owes its beauty to the fact that it eats a particular species of poisonous plant. The very nature of the peacock is such that it can actually consume poison, and THRIVES on it; hence it does not have to transform the poison, but eats it directly. The peacock represents Dzogchen, the path of self-liberation, the fruition of all the nine yanas.

Sogyal Rinpoche, Dzogchen and Padmasambhava, 1990, Rigpa Fellowship

These illustrate three different approaches towards the same thing: freedom from the disorientation associated with perceiving oneself as a tiny being, and learning to experience reality instead as an endlessly breaking and interconnected wave of time and space.

Before I ever encountered Buddhism I tried the first technique, to force myself to “behave”. This is the usual naive approach of most people at a certain age or stage of development. It brings some relief from the addictive habits of mind, and some improvement in behaviour from the perspective of other people, but a lot of subsequent body-mind tension and anxiety, possible burnout and chronic issues such as fibromyalgia and associated energy fluctuations. I’ve tried the second technique also, and rate it as powerful and transformative. However, it is not a middle road path for me. My tendency has always been to put others first since a very young age, and accentuating that aspect does not help me integrate self with other, it simply loops me back onto the first path again; that is, suppression and renunciation of internal urges and insight in favour of the perceived forces and demands of the Other (other people, other things, other times).

I’m currently trying out the more tantric approach of vajrayana (specifically the yoga tantra). It seems to me a very powerful form of liberation, perhaps the most powerful, since it inherently includes full integration and perception of morality within the very practice itself. Thus, when awakening occurs, it is likely that it will be to a life worth awakening to. Embracing the negative emotions and experiences, the cravings and aversions, the dust and the muck of organic reality, to me seems like the real deal. The ultimate intention behind all liberation, surely, is to participate fully in this life, is it not?

But I’m taking it carefully. Embracing those cravings and repulsions, experiencing reality fully, “sucking on the plump teats of life” as I once heard it described, is just as possibly a path of temptation and misery as it is a path of liberation. Finding a middle road within the true upheavals of daily life is a much tougher ask than it is from within the renunciate’s cave. I’ve also been able to discover and communicate with many more truly realised masters of the vipassana tradition than I have had any luck finding the same within vajrayana. So, for now, I’m treading the road of vipassana in terms of technique, and as a practice, while living from a philosophy of integration and non-renunciation, using my own intuition and the insights generated from within vipassana to navigate the householder’s life (as a father, lover, friend, teacher). I’ll keep my eyes open for opportunities to undertake training in the vajrayana and the mahamudra. It will bridge the two streams of vipassana on the one hand and yoga practice on the other. But no hurry. And, as I already described, I’m doing my own explorations in that area as it is, with all of the inevitable fluctuations, mis-steps and indulgences that accompany self-directed practice.

Taking it carefully, and sitting with the karmic burn of any unskillful acts as I find a way through the woods towards a refuge that does not exist.

Leave A Comment, Written on April 25th, 2015 & filed under ,

Have had a lot of Dark Night type phenomena in my practice for the last three days, after a realisation (again during walking practice) that in hindsight smacks of transition through the knowledges of Arising and Passing Away. That A&P realisation is what I want to relate here, trying to convey through words an experience that is in large part indescribable, before the perceptions fade into the background.

I had been working with all senses (the “sensate field” as they call it on Dharma Overground) and noticed it was difficult to notice cessation of the entire field (as opposed to a single sense-door); yes, the field constantly rippled and changed as individual sensations dropped away and different sense-doors rose to the foreground, but it was, as a field, constantly there.

I knew theoretically that this was an illusion, so I began to tighten up my awareness, and broadening it out, “flattening” it was how I would describe. Like surface tension on water, the slightest brush or whisper of sense made my perception tremble. I was really trying to perceive as much as possible all at once.

There was a shift, and the field itself came into the foreground. Riding that wave, I didn’t notice cessation of the field per se … how can one notice cessation of all the senses? By definition it is unnoticeable. But what I did notice was a feeling of discontinuity, disorientation from moment to moment, which to me seemed consistent with the illusion of “self” bootstrapping itself after moments of cessation. I noticed that those moments of strobing in and out of experience were very pesky, lending a sense of jarring-ness to reality.

This reaffirmed in the depths of my own experience that this popping in and out on an infinitesimal time scale is in fact an ever-present part of how reality manifests, whether we notice it or not.

Since then, a buttery slide into Dissolution and Fear, characterised by the coming forward of those pesky blips, colouring the field with static.

Leave A Comment, Written on February 17th, 2015 & filed under

Rest your awareness in the cradle of lovingkindness. Notice how they say cradle?

Teacher Monk (my meditation teacher at Thailand’s Doi Suthep monastery) has a wonderful true story from his life that is too long to relate here — he spends a full hour’s Dhamma discourse in the telling — but in it he illustrates so beautifully the fact we were all children once, and can be again. All of those childhood experiences (the joy of sunshine and waves, flowers and rocks, the loss of beloved pets or the sadness of the elders passing away) are still part of us. They’re our bedrock, never leaving us, and inhabit our bodies and our dreams with us.

It takes only an instant to wake up and next instant you can fall back into fear, confusion … forget yourself. Forget all the incredible streams of happenstance that converge at your present moment. So next moment, start fresh. Every moment is like this, pure.

We must make friends with them… connect the so-called us, the present moment manifest, with that huge depth. This is second yana — Deep Knowledge Pertaining to Cause and Effect. This is paying lovingkindness to the python. Serving the benefit of all by honestly being all that we are.

One of my most beloved quotes by Shinryu Suzuki (in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind) goes:

To live in the realm of Buddha nature means to die as a small being, moment after moment

And then he continues next page:

When we lose our balance we die, but at the same time we also develop ourselves, we grow. Whatever we see is changing, losing its balance. The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony.

This is how everything exists in the realm of Buddha-nature, losing its balance against a background of perfect harmony. So if you see things without realizing the background of Buddha-nature, everything appears to be in the form of suffering. But if you understand the background of existence, you realize that suffering itself is how we live, and how we extend our life. So in Zen sometimes we emphasize the imbalance or disorder of life.

Lose yourself and come back. Lose yourself, come back.

The future is uncertain. The past has already happened. Come back to centre.

The present moment, right now, is all there really is. All else is a dream or a memory.

There is huge freedom to be found in this, but you have to work at seeing it. Like a yoga pose.

2 Comments, Written on February 16th, 2015 & filed under ,

Yep, back in 2008 I went on a 10-day retreat and ruined it for myself by writing a diary the whole time.

Goenka-style vipassana retreats have clear rules about the use of a diary (don’t), reading books (don’t) and doing yoga (well, you get the picture!) and I broke them all.

A dubious honour perhaps! At that time there weren’t many things I’d never have given up, but it happened to include journal writing, reading and yoga. All three are against the retreat Code of Discipline, which (me being me) I saw as a set of rules to break. While I loved the retreat, and other retreats I’ve done since, there were and still are aspects of the Goenka-style vipassana teachings that I don’t find helpful. The rule against journalling is one of them.

It’s my conviction that dedicated journal writers with a lot of experience are essentially practising insight meditation. I’m not talking about structured writing exercises, article writing or stories with a “beginning, middle and end”. I’m talking about streaming consciousness onto paper. It’s choiceless, objective, concentrated and based on the present moment (the mind-door rather than the touch-door). After keeping accurate journals for a year or two, one cannot help but stumble across the Three Characteristics (impermanence, misery and no-self).

I have no idea what the relative merits of journalling would be over something more traditional like vipassana, shikan taza or shamatha. Those sorts of conversations get old really fast anyway. The point is that I feel it helped my practice to keep this journal, and I can only imagine doing a course without one as an experiment … maybe another time.

[Editor: I’ve since done a Goenka course without journalling at all, and I did sink deeper into the practice. But since there’d been two years between courses, during which I’d meditated daily, plus attended a 21 day course in Thailand, it’s hard to say whether it was eliminating the writing practice that caused my increased traction, or whether it was natural progression.]

Without further ado, here are my mostly uncut journal entries from my first retreat, Days Zero through Five. Next week I will publish notes from the second half of the retreat.

Retreat begins with Day Zero, the arrival:

Day Zero :: Arrival :: 27 Dec 2008

Have arrived at Vipassana course. No room of my own: I am in a barn with 12 other men! Very dormitory-styles, although there are sheets strung between each bed and in front, to make curtained cubicles and give a little privacy.

The Men’s Manager reckons the barn is an experience and though I asked about rooms he sounded doubtful. I guess this course is especially busy being holiday-time for everyone.

I will not let it stop me from remaining OK with whatever comes along. In fact, it’s a great opportunity to practice & has already yielded a lot of feelings that I can watch.

At least there’s a flush toilet :-)

Day 1 :: 28 Dec 2008 :: 7:30am

OMG. I can completely understand how XYZ went manic in this place. I want to break every single rule and precept purely because everyone is acting so bloody devout! It’s like: give me a friggin’ break! You guys are just ordinary like me! Get over it!

All walking around as though already in pain, slumping in the shoulders and trudging. Trudging!

It’s a freaking miracle that we are here, alive, able to learn … and people take it like martyrs. Maybe I’m not getting something, but it’s driving me nuts.

This place is beautiful. Why so miserable?

Day 2 :: 29 Dec 2008

Things I like about this retreat:

[Editor: there are plenty of other things to like about these retreats, but I didn’t list them in this journal entry, instead I have embedded them in the later entries.]

Things I don’t like about this retreat:

Day 3 :: 30 Dec 2008

Nothing to report.

Day 4 :: 31 Dec 2008

Further things I don’t like about this retreat:

The Day 3 discourse is brilliant! Inspiring stuff about Gautama’s life. Goenka deconstructs reality down to wavelengths, wavelengths, wavelengths (I don’t buy all the pseudo-scientific clap-trap about kalapas tho ;-).

The Day 3 discourse is also very funny. “Today you are angry because your wife dropped hair in your soup, but last night you were saying ‘Oh, such beautful hair/So wonderful.’

“Where is beautiful?”

Agree with the main message from Goenka, that we must experience directly the Three Characteristics to attain “right understanding” of insight. This is in line with traditional Buddhist teachings.

What’s my middle way?

Me: v conceptual, intellectual, escapist. Lack bodily experience.

XYZ: has bodily experience of impermanence already? E.g. mood swings. Pushing to the limit and beyond to see what will happen. Lacks conceptual/intellectual understanding (“right thoughts” of insight).

Unresolved questions:

Day 5 :: 1 Jan 2009

Struggling with the vipassana technique. Have resolved to make the following mods until my sitting & sensing is stronger:

TOTAL: 69 parts.

During self-directed meditation periods I will use a clock, so that I don’t stop at a predictable place on the body. Otherwise it becomes a race to reach said part: not equanimous.

More positive reinforcement from teacher or Goenka would be helpful here. I wonder how many other people have these problems as beginners.

Obviously Goenka has experience himself, and Buddha’s message of anicca stunningly revolutionary to traditional Western thought. But I find that his teaching methods for vipassana are not entirely suitable for me, struggling with a lifetime of Western-style thinking. Instructions such as “have a balanced mind”, “remain perfectly equanimous” are frankly dangerous to anyone with my same sense of finely-honed perfectionism. Especially in an atmosphere like this retreat, which is so goal-oriented already. He should explain:

  1. How realistic it is for a beginner to have “perfect equanimity” (not very)
  2. How suppression can easily be mistaken for equanimity
  3. Some tricks to help people approach equanimity instead of just being told “remain equanimous”. It’s like: ok, but HOW?

E.g, for me the following help:

Also, his way of dealing with blind areas (to wait 1 minute then move further) is helpful to me, but not as described by him. He says “if no sensations after 1 minute, maybe next round. You will soon reach the stage where you can feel sensations over the entire body”. OMG! So much implicit goal-oriented grasping and clinging involved there, completely contradicting what he said earlier. How can one be equanimous but also hoping for sensation next round?

I deal with blind areas by having a very matter-of-fact, on-the-job conversation with myself. “Got anything here?” (e.g. left temple) … “No? … Ok, fine … How about now? No? Ok, fine… How about now? No? Ok, fine… How about now? Yes? Ok, fine. Next… Got anything here?”

Like a supervisor of longshoremen, going through a manifest. Tick tick tick Cross Cross Tick Tick Tick Tick. Neither the longshoremen nor their supervisor particularly care about crosses or the ticks … they care about an accurate inventory of what was on board the ship. The laws of trade will deal with missing cargo. Same as missing sensations — leave it to dharma (the law of nature) as Goenka himself keeps saying.

Further things I don’t like about this retreat:

Leave A Comment, Written on June 16th, 2013 & filed under ,

Snippet I

Darcy had been in prison at least a fortnight, but still didn’t know his cell-mate’s name. He called him The Wretch.

Lamp-light from the guards’ table filtered through the barred door. It glistened across The Wretch’s ill-sweating forehead and illuminated the bristly beard that sprouted, mould-like, in all directions. The Wretch muttered to himself often, and occasionally spoke to Darcy, but the words were lost to his whiskers and Darcy had no wish to reply. The sick woman down the hall offered her own accompanying moans.

The Wretch was a favourite with the guards, but not in a good way. Though the man rarely spoke, and did little to antagonise them other than lie on his rags and whisper, it was uncommon for the guards to enter the cell without kicking, insulting, or at least spitting upon his desperate, caved-in face. One time a couple of guards, obviously bored, entered the room, tied the prisoner’s hands and took turns to drag him around the room by the thick iron collar shackled to his throat.

Shackled to his starving throat, Darcy corrected himself. Since his own imprisonment, he had seen the guards feed the Wretch less than a handful of times.

Previous missions from the Spectral Archipelago of his birth had called this nation a “kindred antipodean state”, but those reports were filed almost a century ago. During that time, Darcy had discovered, the political system of this remote empire had fallen corrupt, and was now functionally the same as the tyrranies of the South. He had found only legislative lip-service to the power-sharing regime his precursors had written of, so that now the Free Samuryan State of older times existed in name only.

Help from his homeland was unlikely. He had been trained to establish a network of allies in any foreign country, and to rely on them for support. His only communication with home for the last three years had been covert espionage reports passed through his spice trading front. Fewer than six months ago, he had received his first personal update from home: news of the death of his mother. About time, he supposed.

There was little his superiors could do in any case. The distances between Samurya and the Archipelago were so great that any aid they raised would not arrive for a year at least. His only hope of rescue lay in the friends he had established in this now hostile land. Although they had good reason to pursue his release, they were lawful people and would follow the correct, lengthy, procedures. It was unlikely that the idea of covert escape would even occur to them.

Imprisoned, while his clothing rotted and his beard grew unchecked and his skin crawled with lice and his bones ached with cold? Linger, in the flickering light of lantern or brand, to forever crave sunlight, and the blue sky, and the smutty whisper of a summer breeze?

Never. This prison would fall before that happened.

Snippet II

To most people receiving such news laughter was an unlikely response. The source was trustworthy, and the outlook indeed grim. But nonetheless, peering at the note by reflected lamplight, Darcy felt a wheezy chuckle open up in his chest. He had long since reduced his circle of concern down to the personal misery of his own imprisonment. Each prisoner was the same: an island of self-sympathy. It was impossible to give a damn about anyone else in a place like that. Even the impending horror to be wreaked by the arrival of elven hordes meant nothing to Darcy anymore, except in how it may aid his escape home.

Darcy’s auxiliary had obviously written the note hastily, yet he recognised her delicate touch on the parchment, the hated word spelled out with obscure Askalleran pictograms to retain secrecy. Mustering a brief moment of pity for this land, he shook his head. Elves this far south? It was too bad. The pattern of fay migrations had altered drastically in the last few decades. The nomadic elves would crawl like winter through every crack in this land’s defences.

Despite the on-coming devastation, however, Darcy focussed on his own predicament. It wouldn’t help anyone, he thought, to die of starvation in an abandoned prison, or to become a victim himself of the elven fanatics. Indeed, Askallera and the Spectral Archipelago must be warned at all costs, that the northern faerie hosts were now roaming beyond the frozen wastes. It was only a matter of time before their southern cousins began to do likewise.

Ironically, the Samuryans’ new-found hatred of the gift had served him well. Although the Samuryan guards obviously possessed tools for locating the general use of magic, he could lay subtle wards with impunity, the aetheric ripple of their power held in check, undetectable until he invoked them. The ward of weakening he had laid on his shackles weeks ago still held, awaiting his command.

Darcy shivered. The temperature in the prison had dropped considerably since the last meal. Pulling his ragged blanket closer around his neck, he began to plan.

First would come the subjugated beast scouts, perversions of natural creatures. These were sub-sentient, controlled remotely by their wardens, the true elven scouts. Following behind, in vanguard to the real host, would come the ancients: demented, suicidal, rejected by their own for their age, driven forwards by the chaotic ranks of the cannibalistic clerics and mages. Behind them, the teeming Fallen Elf foot soldiers, thousands upon thousands of evil descendants of that once proud race; and finally, the Dark Elf minority: cold, calculating, utterly in control and utterly ruthless, urging the entire host forward with the subliminal chatter of their violent dreams.

The time to escape, Darcy mused, was during the period of early panic, before the countryside was completely overrun. This would come while the elven beast scouts roamed the fields at night, savaging the unwary, and rumour began to roll the eyes of the townsfolk.

Darcy tucked long grey hair behind his ears. The Samuryan people would lose their nerve early. Living in fear of their own leaders, the more able and those with the lowest morale would begin to flee long before the general evacuation order came from the so-called Senate. Desertions from the military were likely. In fact, Darcy began to doubt that in the face of such a threat the Samuryan military could even carry out an orderly evacuation.

He pursed his lips. Every man for himself. So much the better, he thought.

Still, it was one thing to hide from and outwit the beast scouts and the ancients — both were little more than animals after all, ruled by bloodlust, and anything with bloodlust could be deceived, turned upon themselves. It was quite another to be in the path of the religious elven warrior-monks, backed by rank upon rank of true elven soldiers, foul, fallen, yet nonetheless exquisitely graceful, organised and cruelly skillful. He must be rid of this land before the clerics arrived, else he would become yet another victim of their hatred for the free.

Leave A Comment, Written on June 9th, 2013 & filed under
Take words,
penned between points
en route to Delhi,

camel carried rubies
from broken lands,
to Istanbul

where your wailing song
beats the cool white brick,
the warm blue tile.

hold back our Bosporous
saline etch.

Where East and West mingle
take myrrh
and sprinkle it,

let flaccid sails unfurl,
thrum taut; groaning,
embrace your guilty love.

Such salted gulf between us,
your many-dreamed return
on worrying wind from Istanbul.








The newly tweaked version of a poem I wrote back in 2009. Please share~~ poetry wants to be free :)

Leave A Comment, Written on June 1st, 2013 & filed under ,

dying-earthRIP Jack Vance, star-dreamer and father of space pirates, aged 97. A favourite of mine since I was a teen.

The image is a cover from his Dying Earth series. You can toast his long life on http://foreverness.jackvance.com

Leave A Comment, Written on May 31st, 2013 & filed under

The birth was not homely in the end. Despite thirty-one hours of candle-light and warm flannels, it came down to fluorescent bulbs and forceps — a tragedy for the father, who feared failing labour like a University exam. But the mother was just pleased to have her little boy latching on, in the multiple ways that a newborn does. In the boy’s – Darcy’s – innocence, her comfort. “I love you, Marion,” the father offered. His concern stifled the hot summer theatre.

In the months before Darcy’s birth, the river had been a place of solace to Marion. Afternoons with his two sisters had drifted by in the patterns of the clouds, in the habits of the ducks that lived there. While feeding them, Michelle had once forgotten to let go of the bread after an exuberant wind-up and had thrown herself in among them. Dear wee tot, bellowing in her bovine way at the unfairness of the world. Marion had waded through oxygen weed and stagnant mud then, to pull her oldest child to safety. The cool water had soothed her itching abdomen and the bubbles that rose like bath-farts from the swampy river-bed had turned Michelle’s upset into hysteria. Kids were so easy to please!

Read the rest of this entry »

Leave A Comment, Written on May 25th, 2013 & filed under

Dear reader,

Thanks for coming around. This site has been out of action for some time!

I’m a binge-writer. I go through long horrible dry spells and then short periods of wonderfully intoxicated activity.

In an effort to smooth out the ride I’ve built up a backlog of content that I will upload one piece at a time. Hopefully it will be enough to feed the site with fresh meat even while I’m sober and miserable.


Leave A Comment, Written on May 19th, 2013 & filed under