Intimate with fear
As global tensions escalate, have we the courage to bear witness to what scares us? Christopher Titmuss, a leading western meditation teacher, spoke to Vishvapani about his book Transforming our Terror
Christopher greeted me at his house in Totnes, southwest England, in a large black hat, long black raincoat, and trailing black scarf. A senior teacher in the Insight Meditation movement, Christopher is without the cool reserve of some of his contemporaries. In Buddhist circles he has dispensed with his surname and now prefers to be known simply as Christopher. He has large, friendly eyes and an immediately engaging manner. Engagement is one of his themes. 'I recently told one Dharma group, 'I think I prefer Moslems to Buddhists. At least they have some fire, some passion ...'. It was a provocative way of saying that I think Buddhists can be so 'nice', and so passive.'
We met to discuss a book Christopher had published in 2002 in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, called Transforming Our Terror: a spiritual approach to making sense of senseless tragedy. 'I have been visiting the US for 25 years, but mainly just to lead retreats. So the America I encounter is the American mind. And I noticed that after 9/11 there was a great deal more fear and anxiety among the people I was teaching. I started to ask myself, what can Buddhist practice say to this experience?'
The result is an enquiry into the nature of fear, grief, loss, and how the human mind processes and makes sense of them. In essence, Christopher suggests, the collective emotional response to the public trauma of the terrorist attacks mirrored the patterns of personal responses to grief that, in his book, he describes so well: 'The sadness that permeates our hearts due to the arising of the unwelcome, the unwanted, and the unforeseen has a certain emotional weight that can bear down on us until we feel sick in our stomachs. Our chests contract and our heads feel stuffed full of unpleasant sensations. The overall pressure releases tears from our eyes as the breathtakingly painful information begins to sink deeper and deeper into our hearts.'
Implicit in the analogy between how an individual responds to suffering and how a community responds to a collective tragedy is a critique of the War on Terror that America launched in response to 9/11. 'They decided that the way to combat their fear was to hit out. But that involves narrowing down imaginatively, cutting off from the suffering of the other person. In my book I have stories about the suffering of people in Palestine and Afghanistan, but when I submitted the manuscript, the US publisher wanted me to cut these out. Essentially they said, 'Can you keep it just to the experience of Americans?'. But I replied, 'What I am writing about is universal. The Dharma doesn't distinguish between Americans or Afghanis. All it knows about is human beings - their minds and their suffering.' Eventually, when I gave an ultimatum, 'Publish everything or nothing', they backed down and it was printed. But this was an insight into the atmosphere in America after 9/11 and the unconscious forces of censorship that have taken hold.'
I was struck by the eloquence of Christopher's descriptions of grief and sadness, and I asked if they grew from his own experiences. Surprisingly, he answered in the negative. 'I seem to be blessed with a happy, equanimous inner life, and of course I have put in many years of hard-core Dharma practice. I can't remember the last time I found something hard to bear, or I suffered.' Christopher spent six years in the 1970s as a Theravadin Buddhist monk in Thailand, where he studied Vipassana meditation under Ajahn Dhammadharo and Essence of Dharma under Ajahn Buddhadasa, and in India. Since then he has been based at Gaia House in Devon and taught meditation in centres around the world. As well as this he has been an energetic activist, mediating in conflict situations and an energetic campaigner for peaceful solutions.
Christopher's assertion that he experiences little or no suffering is all the more striking as his life has not been without difficulty. Recently he was suspended as a teacher by Gaia House and another leading insight meditation retreat centre, following an allegation by a female student that he 'pursued her and avoided her' during a weekend retreat.
He commented, 'I believe in the intimacy of offering wholehearted attention to a person rather than becoming a detached professional. I regard this as the essence of being a kalyana mitra [good spiritual friend] to others. We have to take the risk that we will be misunderstood and accept the consequences.
'The institution feels it needs to protect its reputation. But losing a place to teach is pretty insignificant if you think that in the end we will lose everything! Our life is a dewdrop hanging on the end of a leaf at dawn. Our dissolution from this garden of life is always soon.' The other centres where Christopher teaches did not think the complaint warranted such a response, and he continues his world-wide teaching programme.
Rather than through his own personal suffering, Christopher suggests that his encounter with the painful emotions he describes has come principally through listening to the experience of others. 'I learn so much through listening to the grief, sorrow and terror of people I work with. I practise the art of witnessing their experience, just as in meditation you witness the thoughts and feelings that arise, while neither becoming lost in them nor cutting off from them.'
Instead of responding to pain and loss with anger or dejection, Buddhist psychology suggests that awareness is the key to a more creative response. Christopher returns repeatedly to this theme of witnessing, evoking the biblical resonances of 'bearing witness'. In Transforming Our Terror he writes, 'The true witness is not passive, but tries to take an overview and maintains a sense of caring responsibility for the totality of the event, free from bias.' In some accounts such awareness can seem cool and detached, but Christopher emphasises sensitivity to experience and - that dangerous word again - 'intimacy' with it. 'Intimacy is an important word for me. Through awareness we can learn to be intimate with nature, with the elements, and with our bodies - in the same way as we think of developing intimacy with another person. That intimacy opens us to the sense of presence and humanity here, right now, in this moment. That intimacy with life lies at the heart of what it is to be human.'
The same quality of awareness without detachment has prompted Christopher's peace work, the practical corollary of his arguments in Transforming Our Terror. He has travelled for many years to Israel and the West Bank where he works closely with the peace movement and others on both sides of the divide. 'Recently I gave a public talk in Tel Aviv, and I said, 'The Israeli military must get out of the West Bank, and allow the Palestinians to live their lives. Soldiers must refuse to support the occupation.'
'One man came up to me afterwards, very angry, and asked, 'Who do you think you are to come here and tell us what to do? What do you know about the situation?' I asked him, 'How many Palestinians have you met and asked what their lives are like?' I could see from his face that he had never spoken to any; so I said, 'I go and listen to the nightmare of the Palestinians, as well as hear from Israelis about their sorrow. That is my authority to speak on such matters. Do you have the authority to speak about the terror of the Palestinians? No, you don't.' '
How can a Buddhist mediate between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East? Christopher emphasises that he isn't looking for converts. 'I tell people, 'You already have three religions, the last thing you need is a fourth!'. I guide people in looking at their responses and their minds, and sometimes they want to know more. So I have been asked to lead retreats in Israel, making available the Buddha's insights, but without any expectation that people will become Buddhists.
'It is a delicate position. In Nablus, where I give workshops on the resolution of suffering, the Palestinians know I am totally supportive of their right to liberation, independence and to live in peace, and the Israelis know that I am wholly supportive of their right to exist.'
Listening to others parallels the act of listening to oneself in meditation, and Christopher advocates an open questioning attitude: 'How do we find a different way of looking? How do we witness what is happening without taking sides? What leads us to believe and accept a particular version of reality?' Such questioning points to the Buddhist emphasis on examining and letting go of divisive views. 'Again and again in Buddhist texts the Buddha asks us to look at our views,' Christopher commented. 'This isn't the same as being non-judgemental - which is what so many western Buddhists are advocating. The Buddha was always criticising the views that were prevalent in his society, saying they led people into suffering. Far too many Buddhists live in fear of appearing judgmental. There is an inability to distinguish between critical, passionate analysis and heaping blame upon others. The first step on the Noble Eightfold Path is Right View, not timid view, not comforting view and not non-view.'
Among the reflections Christopher is most keen to promote is contemplating birth, ageing, pain and death to generate love and compassion amid the vulnerability of daily life. 'In Vipassana monasteries in Asia you can see corpses, sometimes those of senior monks or lay people, to remind you of the truth of impermanence. Contemplating death is the most profound meditation because it has the power to cut through all your ideas about yourself, your plans, your self-importance - everything you get caught up with and think matters.'
Christopher is convinced that such meditative insights have much to offer the political domain. 'However sophisticated our technology, the level of emotional maturity guiding the political courses of our countries is low. There is no attempt to understand the 'other', to ask how others may see us and what we may have done to prompt their anger. Until we can look inside and see how we deal with our own anger and forces of destruction (often disguised by politicians and others as making hard decisions about the real world), we will continue to see its painful consequences in the world outside us.'
Above all, this entails honest, rigorous self-enquiry. As he writes, 'A major catastrophe gives us the opportunity to enquire into our relationship with our beliefs, feelings and opinions. It also acts as a metaphor for other situations of conflict or a seemingly insoluble position.'
For all the positivity of its message, Transforming Our Terror is pervaded by a sad awareness that, far from seizing this opportunity, our political leaders chose to hurl themselves into a cycle of punishment, retribution and the attempt to control. What can one do in response? Christopher's activism has made him a veteran of Dharma Yatras, or peace pilgrimages, which are walked in many countries. And he recently contributed to a bill currently making its way through the British parliament that proposes to establish a UK Ministry of Peace, dedicated to finding non-violent solutions to international conflicts.
Along with a teaching programme in which he lead meditation retreats on four continents, Christopher's activism makes him an incessant traveller, who draws breath when he lands back in his beloved Totnes. I leave him at the station, scarf trailing behind him. He is off to his daughter's house, then on to his regular window seat in the local coffee shop. There he sits, as he has for several years, meeting and engaging with old friends, Dharma students or anyone who wants to chat, with a warm greeting and a welcoming smile.
This image of Christopher encapsulates his message for meditators, politicians and all of us who need to absorb our experience, with its many difficulties. Staying open, not closing down, and bearing witness to whatever life brings.
Christopher's website is at www.insightmeditation.org