Inspired once again by just five days with Pichest, I begin this prattle with perhaps the overriding theme of his world view; “by own self make”. It’s actually one of those extremely simple and at the same time extremely difficult things to practice. Often, when Pichest demonstrates something that looks so simple, he’ll laugh and say, “easy to see” (with the implied corollary that it is very difficult to do – at least for us – and it is). So it is with a lot of the concepts that he teaches, a lot of concepts that come from a lifetime of marinating in Buddhist culture and practice. They are easy to hear, they make us feel good to hear, they make us think they are just within our grasp, but if we are honest, we find that our habits are so entrenched and these ways of being, experiencing and acting only begin to change after years of effort and even then quite slowly. He wiggles his pinky finger and says “little bit, little bit”. He might follow up by the more hopeful, “never too late!”.
In the meantime, all of our senses are constantly receiving input from the world outside. Our eyes are seeing things that we like or we don’t like. Our ears are hearing things that we like or don’t like. Our skin is attracted to things we want or is repelled by that which we don’t want. We are being relentlessly pushed towards things we want and pull away from things we don’t want. One of the ways that Pichest talks about this idea is by invoking 7-11, yes, the convenience store. 7-11 is ubiquitous in Thailand. I remember being in Bangkok one time and counting six 7-11’s just in my line of site, including 7-11’s literally across the street from each other. He uses this as a stand-in for those sorts of enticements. The tastes, the colors, the way we are drawn as if by some force to the promise that we are going to get something that is going to make us feel good. But of course it’s only for a moment that we feel good after we eat that ice cream. It’s only afterward that the belly might start hurting or after years of being magnetically drawn to these enticements our arteries harden and our energy begins to wane. Pichest will say, “mind smiling but body not smiling”. In other words, the mind gets what it wants, say the ice cream, but the body pays the price. We don’t know how to listen to the messages that our own body is speaking to us.
This brings us to an idea that is commonly understood in Thailand. That the busy, thinking mind distracts us and drowns out the messages that the body is trying to tell us. “Don’t think too much” is a common way that people end meetings in Thailand. They often make the connection between the thinking mind which plans and worries and is constantly drawn to whatever shiny object grabs its attention and the body which becomes a victim of that mind. When the mind worries the body tenses. When the mind is afraid, the body tenses. When the mind is thinking of the future, the body tenses. When the mind is angry, the body tenses. When the mind wants ice cream the body is charged with having to process it. And on and on. Tension and tension and more tension. All this contraction affects our breathing which causes a vicious cycle of tension causing the body to release cortisol and other stress hormones which damage our organs and all the other systems in the body. It affects blood pressure and overall blood circulation. It affects production of stomach acid and creates digestive problems. And on and on and on. All these body problems come about because our senses are so open and vulnerable to the outside world creating an endless stream of emotional responses that become lodged in the body.
So now that we see the problem, how do we solve it? Although I’ve never heard Pichest use the word, upekkha seems to describe much of what he says. Upekkha is the Pali word for equanimity. Upekkha describes a separation, a way of being that doesn’t get so involved in other people’s stuff. With compassion as the guide, upekkha allows us to be around difficult situations, people and energies without being overwhelmed by them. It recognizes where we start and stop and where others start and stop. Most of the time, our equanimity is not strong and we are so vulnerable to even the most benign critique. Perhaps someone we know says something we don’t like, does something we don’t like, doesn’t give us what we want, or gives us something we don’t want. Instantly we are “sad, mad, nervous, afraid”. We take on their stuff because our boundaries are so weak. Then we blame them for our problems, blame them for our broken heart. We get angry with them and get headaches and can’t sleep and are always thinking about the bad thing that they did or said. But as Pichest said yesterday, “we thinking they did bad and we cannot sleeping but they don’t know and are happy and sleeping. We bad dreaming but they good dreaming.” We grab the piece of hot coal to throw it but just end up burning ourself. And it’s quick to happen. Someone says something that triggers us and in an instant the emotion floods us with anger or sadness or whatever it is. Then we react and say or do things that we may instantly regret. Or perhaps we get drunk or watch TV or drive recklessly or go to the coffee shop (name your poison here) in order to distract ourselves to push away the uncomfortable feelings that have arisen so quickly, so instinctually. This happens over and over and over again, day after day after day.
In this way, we blame the outside world (other people, parents, circumstances, the universe, whatever) for our problems. But as Pichest says over and over and over again, “by own self make”. The broken heart you have wasn’t caused by your boyfriend or girlfriend. By own self make. The anger you have toward you father who didn’t love you in the way you wanted to be loved. By own self make. The sadness that you have because you didn’t get into the program that you really wanted to get into. By own self make. The anger you had toward the person who hit your car today and knocked the rear view mirror off. By own self make. The injury you got when walking down the sidewalk. By own self make. Pichest has this stick. It looks like a simple wooden cane. He calls it his “poke” stick. He simulated poking himself in the head saying “mad, poke, sad, poke, why you break my heart?, poke, why you say that? Poke, why are you hurting me? poke.” By doing this he shows how he would constantly remind himself “by own self make” every time he realized he was blaming or taking something from outside of himself. He now says, “before poke me, but now, (turning the stick around and pretending to hit us), poke you.” In other words, he had to achieve a certain level of understanding and when he did he could share it with us because it was in him. It wasn’t a concept or a bit of book knowledge. It was the kind of knowledge that only comes from discipline and experience. This is exactly the idea of meditation. Every time the mind strays, come back to the breath. Do this over and over and over again, all the while gaining concentration and taming the monkey mind (not by force but by force of habit).
By recognizing our own mental habits and through that recognition, beginning to let them go, we strengthen our heart so that we can do good in the world. We do good not in reaction to life or because of thinking mind thinks we should, we do good because we are not overwhelmed by the confusion of a mind that needs constant entertainment and we can tap more deeply into our own intuition. Pichest often remarks that our hearts are weak. They are weak because we are constantly overwhelmed by emotion that comes from things we like or don’t like, want or don’t want entering into our unguarded sense doors. “Make heart strong and then go!!!” He says punching his heart with his fist and then punching his fist in the air in a mark of power.
Pichest is constantly giggling and laughing as he talks, tying everything back to our weak hearts that come from being constantly buffeted by the ceaseless winds of unbridled emotion. He openly questions the value of Thai massage in the face of such powerful forces in the mind and body. But when it comes down to it, his compassion is strong and he wants to help. And he is able to help because he is so sensitive (not sensitive in the mind and therefore he can be more sensitive in reading the body’s language). Slowly, slowly, I work to cultivate even a shadow of the sensitivity that Pichest has. He has once again reminded me that in order to be great at this practice, there has to be an understanding of the larger forces acting on the body. That there is more to it than just physical structures for us to manipulate. Once again, thank you Pichest, for the many lessons.