Touch & story

By Patrick Kearney

On a cold and windy day I am hanging out my washing. The wet material is heavy in my hands and the wind whips it about, sometimes slapping it into my face. What is most clear to me in this activity? Strangely, it’s not my struggles with my washing; it’s a memory of an incident that happened 10 years ago as it replays itself in my mind.

This is an experience that all of us might recognise as ordinary, yet it reveals something very interesting. The five physical sensitivities of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching present me with a world that is vivid and clear. Yet, what is most likely to take and hold my attention is the river of stories that flows through my mind, the sixth sensitivity. I live in and as my stories. When I come to practise meditation, I find that something as simple as tracking my breathing is an immense challenge. I cannot fully connect with my breathing because it feels like it is covered by cling-wrap, that it lies just out of touch. It is wrapped in the river of stories.

I live in my stories because they provide meaning, and I hunger for meaning. These meanings may be enormously trivial – “Coffee now or later?” – or deeply significant, such as those attached to the eruptions of my deepest emotions. But they refuse to let me alone, and will not respect my decision to stick to my meditation.

As I practise, it becomes clear to me that meaning is not something provided by the world. The meanings that define me and my world are complex constructions, the artworks of my mind, and the raw materials they are shaped from are the fundamental movements of attraction, aversion and delusion that emerge from depths far beneath my awareness. These meanings entangle me in “longing and sorrow” (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta Applications of mindfulness MN 10 ), and I find myself creating a world of pain, “burning with birth, ageing and death; with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair (Āditta Sutta Burning SN 35:28).

I need to step out of these stories and the meanings they weave, so I can begin to see them in perspective. Perhaps some meanings are destructive, and lead to harm and suffering for myself and those around me. Perhaps some meanings are creative, and lead to welfare and happiness for myself and those around me. I cannot find a perspective from which to assess them when I live most of my life inside them. Then what can I do?

I am entangled in the world of meaning because I spend most of my life in the sixth sense sensitivity. What if I made it my practice to live predominantly in the world of the five physical sensitivities, defined by the direct touch of the physical world of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching?

One foundational practice the Buddha teaches in Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is mindfulness of movement (iriyā-patha), where I ground my awareness on whatever my body is doing, now. This involves maintaining a simple, wide-open awareness of physical activity. Am I moving, standing, sitting or lying down? Am I reaching, lifting, touching or releasing? Am I seeing, hearing or feeling? What am I doing, now?

For example, I practise moving without making noise. Walking; shifting a chair; sitting down; standing up; putting things into and taking them out of a cupboard. I try to do all these normal, routine activities silently, and when I succeed I discover I am doing them mindfully.

Sometimes I find myself doing something noisily and clumsily. At that moment I check: was I mindful of body, just then? Or was I lost in my conceptual world? Usually the answer is, “Lost!” so the practice of moving silently becomes that of moving gracefully, where moving gracefully is based on cultivating a sensitivity to my moments of clumsiness.

This practice also uncovers my relationship to time, for when awareness races away from the immediacy of body it moves into time. By “time” I mean the felt reality of past and future. Time is real only in my concepts, the stories I tell myself that require a self who moves through a narrative arc from a past to a contrasting future. The body’s language is that of sensation, and the only story sensation tells is that of the immediate present. When I am grounded in the physical world, I am necessarily grounded in the present. This does not mean I cannot learn from the past or plan for the future. It means that I remain clear, during my memories and anticipations, that these stories are occurring here, in this body; now, as this body. Time then becomes my servant rather than my master.

Finally, as I learn to live within this physical world, this world already available and already touching me, I discover – or perhaps rediscover – the pleasure of immediacy. The pleasure of simply being here, in this place, with these conditions of light and shade, warmth and coolness, colour and form, touch and feel. There is a naïve simplicity in this pleasure, like the pleasure the Buddha remembered when he sat under the Rose-Apple tree as a child. This pleasure is more contentment than stimulation, and it opens the possibility for calm and integration rather than the restless search for stimulation that normally occupies my heart. It provides the foundation for the cultivation of samādhi, the unification of the heart/mind. It melts the cling-wrap that blocks me from intimacy and releases me from the bondage of the river of stories.

Patrick Kearney is a founding member of the Buddha Sasana Association and long-time teacher at BMIMC.

Residents in and around Canberra may be interested to know Patrick has two courses in Canberra scheduled for late March. Click here for more details.