Monthly Archives: April 2015

Fresh Clear Eyes

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In Buddhist meditation there is a lot of formal practice, often tedious and frequently painful. In the same way an athlete will excercise so too does a Buddhist spend time on their cushion each day. The athlete trains so that at the time of their event they can perform well. I trained so that I could be aware of the process of the mind creating opinions, judgements, stories.

Why did I spend six years training to be aware of the process of the mind? So I could be free of the unhelpful habits of my mind that (according to Buddha) are the cause of all misery.

I’ve moved away from formal Buddhist meditation but the training is still there. And every now and then it kicks in spontaneously. I will be fuming with anger about someone and then I suddenly realise I am furious not because of them but because of an opinion I was holding onto about them. In the absence of that opinion I don’t have a problem. By seeing the process one can step outside it – if that’s what you choose. Not everyone wishes to.

Even the old decaying concrete walls and piles of rubbish looked fresh and new. I suppose that’s what happens when I have fresh, clear eyes.

The Ganga River in Rishikesh

The Ganga River in Rishikesh

 

So I was in Rishikesh, India, and having a moment by the Ganga River. There was water, sunlight, buildings, rocks. There was no script, no story. Just the river and sunshine and my breathing. And I was aware of this moment and accepting of it.

I’d stepped out of the usual mental process for a moment. The next step is to not be sucked back into that usual mental process by automatically filling that space. And a part of me wanted to fill the space, fill it by fixating on something – sensations, memories or plans, it almost doesn’t matter what. Possibilities arose – I could dwell on the mundane (my bum is sore, i should get up and walk); to the sensory (i could eat those mangoes in my bag, they’d taste delicious right now); to the sensual (I wonder if she’d go to bed with me?); to the transcendental (it would be so cool to be enlightened!).

And the automatic response is to choose an option and become immersed in the drama! To go with a thought and weave a whole vivid and compelling story about this imagined future! One story might be “If I walk where will I go? What will I do?”. Or how about some minor pride over my purchase of mangoes, encouraging myself what a seasoned traveller I am? Erotic daydreams are another great way to avoid investigating the mental process that I find so difficult to step out of. And of course speculating on enlightenment is an ancient method for avoiding the cost of attaining enlightenment.

The complicated process of creating a reality to struggle agains

The complicated process of creating a reality to struggle agains

But in that moment the busy chatter of the mind became another part of the moment, just like the river and the sunlight. All those hours of meditation sent practicing a habit coming to blossom in a moment of spontaneous letting go.

This was a moment when i observed the habit arising in the mind and i side stepped it – let it go. There was a vivid sense of something bustling and writhing, looking to feed itself, looking to grow. Like a virus, wanting to hijack my energy, control me.

In that moment it was possible to stop the mental-virus before it gained momentum. And the resulting space in the mind was open to having an experience: the sound of the river; the pattern of leaves against the sky; the feeling of warm, rough concrete against my back.

There was no need for words. There was no need to do anything. It was enough to experience without comment, without judgement, without reaction. The Ganga’s waters made patterns of green and white as the rafters bobbed over the rapids, falling up and down with crazy turbulence as the river roared on, vast and inhuman. I actually saw the river: it was pure energy expressing itself as water. The buildings on the opposite shore amidst the trees and bushes looked as if they had popped into existence in that moment. Everything looked as if it had just appeared. Even the old decaying concrete walls and piles of rubbish looked fresh and new. I suppose that’s what happens when I have fresh, clear eyes.

Space, the only frontier

Space, the only frontier

Space. When I made that decision to not go with the habit of the busy mind there was a lot of space – in the absence of mental clutter the mind has an openness that can welcome and enjoy anything.

I look up and hear Rishikesh. Vividly. See it, smell it. Scooters dodging cow shit and holy men dozing by the side of the road, their beards and dreadlocks intricate patterns of follicles. There are children playing on the river sands, their bright red and green clothes flash like parrots in flight as the kids cry out and chase each other, with the adults walking slowly along after them, barefoot and benign.

House sitting the alpacas

Sitting on houses is an ideal career choice for giant women

Sitting on houses is an ideal career choice for giant women

My partner and I are house sitters. We look after people’s places while they’re away, and often this includes looking after their animals. Usually a cat or a dog, occasionally some chickens. Once we had two horses. It’s usually reasonably laid back, with the odd neurotic terrier or high-maintenance feline making life interesting.

Our current house sit has two dogs, two cats and a dozen alpacas. It’s not near our home town Maleny, which is unusual for us; we like living in the hills. But it’s my sister’s place and so we’ve ventured “off the hill”. It seemed a good idea at the time. They’re off to Gallipoli for the 100th anniversary Anzac thing and we mind their menagerie at their five acres in Burpengary.

An alpaca, similar to the ones we are minding

Reports of an alpaca free house sit proved to be misleading

Initially it was going to be an alpaca free event. The strange long-limbed ones would be shuffled off to a nice farm for the month and we’d just have two dog and two cats to look after.

Complications arose and it looked like there would be a few alpacas to mind. And then it was twelve of them, and two babies.Oh and one of them is sick. As in “might drop dead any moment” sick. And another one is pregnant. As in “was supposed to give birth two weeks ago” pregnant. Gosh, what fun.

Safe to say this has been the busiest house sit I’ve ever done. Getting up early (6am – early for me) to let the dogs out (they sleep inside on beds) and then feed the cats, feed the alpacas, move them to a paddock so they can eat grass all day. Back to feed the dogs and then eat my breakfast, before going back to the bed where my partner slumbers on to get some nice bed warmth. And then it’s going out again and attending to whatever four-legged one needs patting, feeding, letting out, letting in, or cleaning.

keep_calm_by_focusing_on_being_neurotic_dog_shirt-r50e34b1dc9994ff68790aa1f366e08f6_v9iub_8byvr_324The cats and dogs are used to lots of attention and being treated as little people. I don’t treat animals as little people, I find it makes me and the animal a bit neurotic. So the furry ones are slowly coming to grips with the fact they aren’t hearing baby speak all day and may go for an hour without being caressed. Some are coping better than others. The male cat seems to be in a state of denial about being so under appreciated. The female cat has come out of her shell over the last few days. Never seen her so affectionate – maybe she likes being treated like a cat?

The dogs have varied experiences too. One is Harry a very cute labradoodle who is neurotic and doesn’t seem to cope with change very well. He spends a lot of time staring out the window waiting for his owner to come back. He’s eating though, so it can’t be too bad. The other dog is Oliver, a golden retriever who is very sweet and quite possibly the dumbest dog I’ve ever met. I’ve found him a few times just standing and staring at walls, eyes unfocused. I call it ‘Standby mode’, and Oliver’s there a lot. He has two loves, food and sleep. Doesn’t like being outside for more than 10 minutes, prefers the lounge to the great outdoors. If there was an Olympics for sleeping and general doggy inertia Oliver would win gold.

But there’s more than mentally unstable pets and medically-critical farm animals. The big thrill yesterday was chasing a blind alpaca around a paddock. Yep, they have a blind alpaca. Blind since birth. They call her Stevie Wander as she frequently gets lost in the acre paddocks and someone has to bring her back. Which – as of now – is me.

What if she gets away?

What if the blind alpaca gets away?

So there i was, in the paddock and clapping my hands which I’m told should attract her, like a homing signal. “Clap and call her name,” they said. So I did. Stevie heard my clapping, made sure she knew where i was – and then ran in the opposite direction. Did this flamboyant little jump and then sprinted off. I chased and prayed and shouted for a while and she just ran away from me. All my superior intelligence mattered didley squat. I finally conceded the battle and drooped back to home to enlist reinforcements and prepare for a fresh attempt.

My partner Kerry had her first taste of alpaca wrangling as we came back to herd Stevie into a corner of the paddock. “Herd” may not be the right word – “run around and say encouraging things and hope the bloody animal goes the way i want it to” is probably more accurate.  Finally I tiptoed up close and then seized her neck in the time-honoured ‘arm-around-the-neck’ alpaca controlling motion.

I do feel a little bit for Stevie Wander. Her life experience is of strange noises and frequently being seized by invisible hands. What a life! When I seized her she bucked and reared but there was no way I was letting go. Seeing an alpaca in an acre paddock running away from you must be one of the most dispiriting things possible, and it was getting dark too. Possible heart break right there.

So I’m holding a startled alpaca who’s leaping around manically but i managed to hook her neck and hold her still, stroking her neck and telling her it was alright as I slipped the halter over her snout and around the back of my head. I felt an immense relief and an adrenaline high.

This is what a haltered alpaca looks like. What a relief!

We walked her back to the night paddock where she could join her fellow bovine quadrepeds in munching hay as the sun went down. As I took the halter off she leapt away and then stopped, shook herself and casually trotted off. To me it was a big deal. To her, it was just another day of random grapplings and strange noises.

Then off to feed the dogs and cats and make our dinner. Life on the land!

Monday night at the Upfront Club

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Lee Hardisty (on saxophone) jams with an impromptu ‘Blackboard Night’ band. Photo: Laurel Wilson

Driving into Maleny on a Monday night and this little country town in the hills of the Sunshine Coast hinterland is quiet. The Maleny Hotel has a few cars in the car park, the IGA Supermarket is host to a few late shoppers. Everything else on the main street is closed: except for a small cafe full of diners, light and noise, all of which spill out onto the footpath. It’s a strange contrast to the rest of the night. Drive for five minutes either way and the most activity you’ll see is cows sleeping in their paddocks.

What draws a lively crowd into this little cafe on a quiet Monday night?

Monday night is Blackboard night at the Upfront Club where musicians put their name down for a 15 minute appearance on a tiny stage and the diners are presented with a musical lucky dip. Professionals share the tiny stage with amateurs as the Club patrons dine, wine and applaud. Veterans of stage and tours alongside teenage debutants. The musicians’ efforts earn them a free meal and diners can put money in the hat that’s passed around to make a modest ‘prize’ for the best acts of the night.

As we arrive local guitarist Rob Longstaff is singing his song “Ghosts of the Chelsea Hotel”, before finishing his set with a raunchy, stomping number accompanied by his mate saxophone supremeo Lee Hardisty. Both of them have toured internationally and recorded; both call Maleny home.

Our meal tonight is a pumpkin and chickpea fritter, splashed with sour cream and served on a bed of green salad and beans. The menu is full of organic food and the display cabinet is full of amazing cakes. The staff, many of whom are volunteers, are kept busy taking meals out and bringing dirty plates back inside.

A harp and a large flute. Note the blackboard with time slots and musician's names.

A harp and a very large flute. Note the blackboard with time slots and musician’s names. Photo: Laurel Wilson

The musicians step up for 15 minutes of fame and the Club hums with music and conversation. Out the front on the footpath the tables are full as kids run around and adults stand and talk. Monday is the night many locals drop in to catch up and there is a lot of friendly chatter as the different acts come and go.

In less than two hours we’ve heard guitars, saxophone, trumpet, drums, harp, a Cittern and voices young and old singing everything from folk music to devotional mantras. Monday at the Upfront Club is the night to hear what an amazing musical community sounds like.

Awareness: the path out of suffering

Prem Baba teaching

There was a Brazilian teacher in Rishikesh in 2013 whose name was Prem Baba and he was giving free talks at a large ashram on the banks of the Ganga River. He was talking about Awareness as his main practice. He said Presence was the goal – “truly being awake right now, not lost in some fantasy of the past or the future.” The room he taught in was light and airy, with over 100 devotees from all over the world listening to him speak Portugese or listening to the translator’s English words.

He said the main obstacle to Awareness was Inner Dialogue, the mental chatter. This comes from the unconscious wishes and fears clashing with the conscious ones.

“We can say ‘yes’ as often as we like, but if our unconscious is saying ‘no’ then nothing will change.”

He said the remedy was to take responsibility for the suffering and abandon the stance of being the victim. This is not the attitude of ‘this is my fault’ (which is still victim thinking) but rather ‘this is my opportunity for freedom’. My freedom is my responsibility – because who else can free me from suffering?

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Anger isolates me from being Present

“So I try to be simply Aware of what is happening, without blaming anything or anyone.  Without blame there is no sense of injustice, no taste of bitterness or resentment.”

For instance, perhaps there is anger; be with that anger without identifying with the anger. Even if only for a few moments; this is being the witness, not the victim. If the justification for being angry arise try and witness that too. Be Aware of what is going on without believing any of it. If we don’t feed these sparks of madness they don’t become flames.

“Similarly, be  with the inadequacy, the betrayal, the hunger, the despair. Accept their presence rather than look to assign guilt for their existence. Resist the habit of putting toxins in your mental environment! This is the moment by moment process of liberation.”

By witnessing – by being Aware – we see more and more what the real nature of these painful minds are. Before I avoided them by weaving a fantasy of blame: blaming myself, my family, my friends, society, God, the devil… an endless process of avoiding taking responsibility.

I am Happy

“I am happy in my soap opera! Leave me alone!”

Now by accepting and being present – being aware – the nature of my pain becomes clear. I slowly bring what is unconscious into the light. And this awareness itself naturally leads to letting go.

It’s a moment of discovery of a world I am usually oblivious to because it’s so often drowned out by my internal soap opera. I am left with the simple reality of what I am actually  experiencing, the unadorned and naked moment. The sounds i was too engrossed in ego to hear; the colour and pattern of the curtain in my room; the feel of water on my skin; the taste of a cup of tea.

Presence gives everything a feeling of sacredness.

Pale headed rosella, late summer 2014

It was the yellow I saw first. A yellow-headed bird. He had his back to us, and his shoulders and the back of his head were this startling yellow. A bright butter yellow on this dull, wet morning. The night’s rain hadn’t exhausted the clouds, and they drifted around the trees and houses as mist, making everything subdued, flatter, slower. The moist air was chilly; almost startling after the heat of the last few days.

A typical Pale Headed Rosella from behind

We were out the back of the house we were sitting, sharing a cup of tea on the little garden bench under the eaves. The backyard fell away down the slope and the low, misty clouds flowed around the trees and over the lawns. Suddenly my partner pointed to this vividly coloured parrot perched a few metres away that neither one of us had noticed. He’d been there when we came out and only after we’d started to relax did he become apparent. A parrot with a yellow head and shoulders and a lower half of deep dark blue. Like someone had draped a silk hood of shimmering yellow over a jacket of dark blue feathers. We started talking about what sort of photo we could take. You wanted to include the lawn’s generous harvest of dandelions, the little yellow starbursts waving in a sea of grass leaves. I was keener on a good zoom lens shot.

As the conversation meandered we intermittently admired the parrot as he perched there on the fence, flamboyant and watchful. Suddenly there was a neat stretch of wing-feathers and we saw a flash of more colours. Then the parrot stretched his other wing; a smooth snap of feathers that happened in a blink. “Was there some red there?” my partner wondered.

Side view of the Pale Headed Rosella

Side view of the Pale Headed Rosella

The parrot abrubtly turned around, pirouetting in a moment. Before the small bird had been tantalising us, looking over his shoulder. Now, here he was in all his glory: his face was pale yellow, and his breast and waistcoat and outside wings were lapus lazuli, shot through with a royal dark blue. And behind his legs, the underside of his  tail was a dark red, unexpectedly vivid against the blue. “He’s got three colours!” we exclaimed, delighted at this splendid fellow’s display on this chilly Maleny morning. And he perched and watched and waited, as birds do on cold mornings, hoping for something other than wet and cold to appear.

Then he shifted and for a moment he was like a swimmer on the starting block, poised and intent. And then bang! the wings flare out, the legs straighten and this bundle of feathered colour leaps into a beautiful blurred arc that takes him to a higher perch in a nearby pine tree. We look up at him now, as he surveys and preens. Our conversation meanders on until at one point we notice he is gone. Now there’s just the fence and the countless yellow dandelions in the drizzle, and the houses across the small gully are disappearing behind the waves of mist.