Updated: May 3, 2022
Today is the birthday of one of my early Buddhist teachers, Ajahn Sucitto, who was the abbot of Cittaviveka monastery in East Sussex when I visited there. He still lives and teaches there, and you can find out more at his website ajahnsucitto.org. Back in 2013, I bumped into him on the way to Lisbon, where he was teaching and his words that night sparked a series of seven blogs on Buddhist themes. I’m ‘re-booting them here for your enjoyment. Bear in mind these were written eight years ago, so that it might exhibit some Dharma stupidity on my part!
Last Monday, I was flying off to Lisbon to complete my last week of filming for the BBC. As I approached the departure gate at Gatwick, I was bemused to see one of my old teachers from Chithurst Monastery, Ajahn Sucitto, standing at the head of the queue resplendent and tall in his ochre robes.
I found myself in a top-floor apartment, sitting cross-legged on the floor listening to Sucitto talk.
My time at Chithurst was right at the beginning of my Buddhist journey. In the interim, I had rather drifted away from that school of Buddhism and the monastery. Though, oddly, during a retreat up on Holy Island, I found myself listening to hours and hours of Theravadan teachers. Amongst them also Ajahn S.
So it was a good opening gambit to approach him and make the Anjali gesture. Address him as Ajahn, and tell him that only 24 hours earlier, I’d been listening to him on my iPod. He seemed pleased.
During the journey and waiting for our luggage, I gleaned that he was over in the Portuguese capital to speak to a new monastic group there. And to give a lecture at the Uniao Budista in the City the following day. So, once I had finished my first day’s filming, I wandered off from the team into the night. Climbed numerous flights of stairs and found myself in a top-floor apartment with about thirty others, sitting cross-legged on the floor listening to Sucitto talk.
My short-term memory is quite astute (all those years of learning ‘pieces-to-cameras’). I managed to recall seven significant points that he mentioned in his hour-long dhamma talk and Q&A, and since they impact so precisely on a lot of the themes that arose out of our Holy Island retreat, I thought I would post some thoughts on each one in turn.
Many of us have slithered into a way of life that is always about tending to external sources of validation
The first was: The Buddhist path is balancing inner and outer. It’s amazing how simple this statement is and yet how profound it strikes me in these autumnal days of 2013.
One of the themes of the Holy Island retreat that we seemed to revolve around over and over was the need to come to our centres.
Modern life – with Facebook, Twitter, 24-hour email, reality shows, Instagram – is a constant rush to the periphery. Many of us have slithered into a way of life that is always about tending to external sources of validation. By that, I mean the fluttery sense of uplift and the panicky sense of ‘not enough!’ that come each time we post something on FB and only one or two people ‘like’ it. The dopamine spike when our email folder pings a new mail, or Twitter tells us that someone has retweeted our thoughts. On a wider scale, when we dress to impress or rehearse how we will be looked at or judged by others, we live on the periphery. When we sculpt out activities to ‘seem’ a certain way, to impress or placate others – this is also periphery living.
It is a deeply ingrained trait of social animals to care about what other people think about them
This is not pathological or a personal failing. Modern consumerist society cultivates it with every advert or template we are urged to aspire to. The very mechanics of Facebook and dating sites push us in that direction. Also, it is a deeply ingrained trait of social animals to care about what other people think about them. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the outer. However, when we are all outer and so distanced from our inner world, we suffer enormously.
I can testify to this daily. Having moved out of London into the glorious Sussex countryside, I am much more aware of the draw of Facebook. And the computerised contact with the outside world. And I was becoming alarmingly aware of how much time I spend cultivating and encouraging people to message me or engage with me in that disembodied way. The problem is, of course, that there is nobody actually to connect with. All that I am rewarded by is a cerebral tick. An abstract ‘like’ that gives me a temporary lift and then leaves me feeling a bit devalued and cheated.
A couple of nights ago, I was heading into Brighton on the bus and met a group of 19-year-old lads on their way into town. One of them recognised me, and we started talking. He asked if I was on Twitter, and when I said I was, he proudly admitted that he had 50 thousand followers. Fifty thousand! He spent two hours a day tending his Twitter following, and when I asked him what the attraction was, he looked blank. And then he bashfully admitted that he rather liked getting messages and being retweeted and acknowledged. When we looked at his feed, it was all retweets and second-handed bits of wisdom/opinion. The content didn’t matter, only the reception.
He was nineteen, I’m forty-three, and I recognise exactly the same mechanism at work. The same tickling search for little pings of validation, even fifty thousand of which, will not make me feel really happy.
Perhaps that’s why I steered our retreat this year towards the Buddhist practice of samadhi—the skill of going inward into the body and finding bliss and pleasure in stillness and rest.
If we don’t have a comfortable centre then our relations to the world outside will always be grasping
I rediscovered this practice I used to teach when I started running workshops, but I have gradually phased it out in favour of mindfulness or sati practice.
The Theravadan school – who still base their practice on the Eightfold Path of the Pali canon – give equal weight to sati and samadhi. And it was this return to the Centre that Ajahn Sucitto spoke of in his Lisbon talk.
Of course, we live in a world with other people and other creatures and objects. We must, of course, have a skilful relationship with them. When we meditate or become Buddhists, we don’t become inward-fixated lumps with a panic fear of attachment and engagement. But if we don’t have a comfortable centre, then our relations to the world outside will always be grasping. We will be exploiting the world around us to fill our lack. We inhabit a starvation mentality that makes us anxious and clingy, and demanding.
Samadhi, the structured descent into our bodies, into the blissful simplicity of breathing and being, is a tonic to this. It reconnects us with the simple fact of the body. Beneath all our anxious thinking and worrying, there is a body that continues simply and easily in the world. It’s such a nice place to rest. And with practice, we trust that that simple pleasure is always there. Like guaranteed sustenance and safety – and we don’t need to ransack the world around us so much to get it.
After a glorious week of cultivating this sense of a Centre up on the Island, I feel much more able to anchor myself. I notice the difference between the itchy and scratchy Alistair that is all out on the periphery. Desperate for a text or a phone call or a little bit of affirmation and the happier Alistair that takes a breath and remembers: – over and over – that what I have is OK.
I think I’m going to concentrate on teaching this practice in the coming year. I think it’s a necessary balance to the fashionable surge of interest in mindfulness. Knowing what is happening as it happens is tremendously powerful – but consciously cultivating a sense of inner OKness and ease is absolutely essential these days.
It’s like owning a Maserati and expecting it to run just on the appreciative and envious stares of passers-by. You will definitely need fuel! Samadhi is the fuel.
I’d love to know your thoughts on my thoughts on Sucitto. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!