Tuesday, March 25, 2014

European Travel Calendar

March 22: Arrive at Santacittarama Monastery, Italy: www.santacittarama.org
March 28-31: Visit to Sorrento and Amalfi Coast

April 10: Travel to Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland: www.dhammapala.ch
April 16: Talk in Bern
April 23: Talk in Geneva
April 25-27: Weekend retreat in Thai at Dhammapala

May 6: Travel to Harnham Monastery, UK: www.ratanagiri.org.uk
May 9-11: Weekend retreat at Harnham
May 20: Travel to Amaravati Monastery, UK:www.amaravati.org
May 26-31: Global Elders Meeting

June 3: Travel to Dhammapala Monastery, Switzerland: www.dhammapala.ch
June 14-15: Non-residential retreat in Paris: www.vipassana.fr
June 23: Talk in Zurich
June 26: Talk in Basel

July 3: Travel to Santaloca, Italy
July 10: Travel to Chithurst Monastery, UK: www.cittaviveka.org
July 12: Enter Rains Retreat at Chithurst Monastery

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dhammagiri Hermitage, Kholo (Brisbane), Queensland, Australia

My time here at Dhammagiri Hermitage has been very enjoyable but is quickly coming to an end. The external conditions are exceptionally comfortable and supportive. The weather in Brisbane is one of the most pleasant in Australia. During my five-week stay it was almost monotonous, with still, sunny 20C mornings and partly-cloudy, breezy 30C afternoons. A few times the temperature reached mid-30's or dropped to a chilly 18C after some sporadic showers.

The monk's lodgings up on the hill are exceptionally quiet and undisturbed from after the meal until the following morning, allowing for a long uninterrupted period of personal practice. The quiet and solitude allows for some very deep and peaceful meditation. The back part of the property adjoins Brisbane City Conservation Reserve and the water catchment reserve for Lake Manchester, part of the drinking water supply for South East Queensland. Almost every morning I walked out the back gate and onto a series of tracks and trails through the reserves, with views over the lake and surrounding bush-clad mountains.

Lake Manchester through the eucalyptus trees.

Conditions were suitable for me to keep up my usual balance of physical, mental and spiritual practice. In contrast to Poo Jom Gom in Thailand, where I focused more on physical and spiritual practice, here I devoted more time to mental practice. Besides my special emphasis on book-writing, I also did quite a bit of talking during the after-meal discussions. Fortunately, many of the monastery supporters are keenly interested in meditation, so we had some very rewarding discussions. Unfortunately, the book-writing took up a lot more time than I had expected. I don't think that the slowness of the work was directly caused by the fact that I was working mostly on the chapter on Lethargy and Drowsiness! It is just that this chapter is the longest one in the book, but hopefully not the most boring.

Towards the end of my stay we took an excursion through the surrounding countryside. We first journeyed westwards through increasingly drier areas to the main water supply reservoir for Brisbane, Lake Wiwenhoe. This area was very dry, although the lake was almost full. In the nearby farms surprisingly fat cattle were grazing on only scattered patches of wilted grass in parched, dusty fields. The famous Australian 'outback' begins a further 1,000 km west. On the route we passed a sign noting Darwin, in the next state, is 3423 km away! Queensland is a BIG place, about five times the size of the UK, but with only 4.2 million people, most of them living along the coast.

We then turned eastwards on the Tourist Route through D'Aguilar National Park, climbing up to 680 meters through wet eucalypt forest into the Queensland subtropical  rainforest. Even though we were only some 20 km away, the dense, humid forest was in marked contrast to the sparse open dry eucalypt forest around Dhammagiri. Massive trees over one metre in diameter towered to 50 metres in height. Strangler fig vines draped over branches and exotic palm trees unfurled their fronds in any slight opening in the canopy. This happened to be the rainiest day of my stay, so it was a true 'rainforest experience' with some heavy rain showers, swirling mists and cool winds.

Due to the incessant showers we managed only one short walk through the forest, and as we were admiring the diversity and density of the rainforest, noticed that we were providing lunch for the thirsty leeches! Further along the Tourist Drive at lower elevations, the clouds thinned out and we made a number of stops at well-provided lookout picnic grounds. On one side of the ridge we could look west over tree-covered hills towards the Great Dividing Range, and the other side gave vistas of the coast all the way to Moreton Bay and Moreton Island. One lookout, Camp Mountain, on the site of former gold-mining camps, offered a spectacular view through a tunnel between tall trees direct to the skyscrapers of the Brisbane Central Business District, flanked by two tree-covered hills. It almost seemed to be an optical illusion, as we stood surrounded 300° by tall trees, with a 60° degree tunnel opening to miniature concrete towers in the distance!

I will soon be spending a day with John and Hanna in northern NSW, just south of the Queensland border. John spent time as a monk in Thailand and England, and Switzerland when I was there. He is now a psychologist with a practice in North Sydney and has been a pioneer in mindfulness-based therapy in Australia. John and Hanna have an idyllic property on top of a ridge between Cabarita Beach and Murwillumbah. Looking out the east side of the house one can see the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean, and on the western side, beside the mango trees, watch the sun set over the sugar cane fields of the Tweed valley and the very prominent Mount Warning, or 'Cloud Catcher' to the Aborigines. And just a few hundred metres down the road lives another ex-monk whom I knew in Thailand. Steven, formerly Tan Pamutto, was a monk in the early years of Wat Nanachat. As a former brick-layer, he was responsible for a number of building projects, including the hospital hut where LP Chah spent the last ten years of his life lovingly cared for by his disciples. Tan Pamutto and I spent one Rains Retreat together at Wat Pah Pong, where LP Chah got the Western monks to help finish work on the stone railing around the Bell Tower and the Uposatha Hall.

Sunset over Mt. Warning, NSW. Photo by John Barter.

On Tuesday I will travel with John to his practice at Well-Awareness in North Sydney, where he has invited me to give several talks to meditation groups before I return to Bangkok on Friday. After that I begin a trip to Europe, visiting a number of the monasteries there. My first stop will be Santacittarama Monastery in Italy, and then in mid-April I will visit Dhammapala Monastery in Switzerland. There I have several teaching engagements, including a weekend retreat in Thai for the dedicated Thai supporters.

Wishing you all well-being, peace and continuity in the practice to awakening.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Visit to Dhammagiri Monastery, Brisbane, Australia: January 29 - March 14

I am departing today for Brisbane where I will be residing at Dhammagiri Monastery until March 14, 2014.
Originally Ajahn Dhammasiha, the resident Abbot, invited me to fill in for him while he was away leading a pilgrimage to the Buddhist Holy Sites in India. Unfortunately this was cancelled, however, Ajahn Dhammasiha extended the invitation so that he could have some personal retreat time over that period.
This was also suitable for me to be able to spend some quieter time working on a book on the Five Hindrances with a possible printing date for 2015. Since I will be traveling in Europe this Spring, a month of intensive book writing and a visit with the very devoted monastery supporters seemed like a good opportunity.

The monastery does not have internet access but I am able to arrange some limited use. Otherwise information and news is posted on their website: www.dhammagiri.org.au

Wishing you all a Happy Chinese New Year (January 31) and a Joyful Magga Puja (February 14).

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Space to Doubt

View from the meditation platform on top of Nibbana Cave.

I am now staying in the Nibbāna Cave near the top of Jom Gom Hill. I am not sure if the name refers to the possibility of Nibbāna for those staying there, or whether it means that the cave itself is 'nibbanic' in quality. On the worldly level the cave is indeed at least 'heavenly' as far as caves go. There are no bats, no ants, few mosquitoes and very pleasant temperatures between 20C and 26C, with even occasional gusts of cool wind. The cave also includes a meditation platform with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside and down the Mekong River. It is a one-hour sunny walk up and a 50-minute stroll down through a star-filled sky. But the most notable aspect is that it is unbelievably quiet. Mostly there is only the rustling of leaves in the wind or occasionally the distant hum of the Mekong rapids. When the wind stops there is only the sound of the mind.

The Nibbana Cave, with wind guard down.

Unfortunately, I will only be here for a short time before visiting Wat Nanachat and Wat Pah Pong for the annual Luang Por Chah commemoration events and meetings; then it is back to Bangkok for more dental work. At the end of January I will travel to Dhammagiri Monastery in Brisbane for six weeks.

A question which keeps returning is the effect that living close to nature has on the mind. While we each try to maintain a certain stable emotional environment, nature has a wide range of expressions (hence we try to buffer ourselves from its extremes). There are so many things to be aware of: changing weather conditions, variations in the landscape, various insects to avoid or be wary of, certain plants which have thorns or protruding branches, loose stones or slippery dry leaves, the occasional dangerous creature, etc. Living exposed to nature's varied expressions thus requires a heightened degree of mindfulness and clear comprehension, as well as resilience so as to be prepared for the unexpected changes and to weather them with some degree of composure. When staying in especially scenic or unusual places, one is drawn to being more attentive to the environment. This brings forth what I call the 'sense of wonderment', a mixture of awe, intensified interest and a curiosity of inquiry. Sometimes there may be a tinge of fear when the curious inquiry slips into uncertainty or doubt, for example when standing on the edge of a steep drop. The effect of wonderment is a focusing of the mind, an energizing of body and mind, a humbling of grandiosity, and sometimes a stirring of questioning or reflectiveness upon the meaning of life: all supportive qualities for meditation.

Another related effect is the distortions of time which can be caused by travelling through spectacular scenery. I am usually fairly good at judging time. However, sometimes when I have journeyed back to the cave after one of my exploratory excursions through the rock ledges and ravines, I have noticed a severe loss of time perspective. I put this down mostly to becoming absorbed in the scenery. This effect is similar to experiences of meditative concentration: the more the subject absorbs into the (meditation) object, the less 'subjective' it feels, for example, relative to time, place and familiar habits. Taken to the extreme of complete absorption, 'subjectivity' becomes entirely lost in unitary consciousness. Some people can be transported 'out of themselves' through seeing exceptional scenery or through intensive activities in nature. One evening as I stood on the stark plateau amongst exotic rock formations, with the setting sun transforming the horizon into a radiant golden glow, the thought arose that I could just as well be on Mars, the scene being so unworldly. A skilled rock climber I knew in England said that when all goes well, he and the rock become one. The limitation of these experiences is that subjectivity is transcended only temporarily, and they can also become something which feeds the ego, since they are still mundane experiences.

As well as inducing concentration,the experience of off-trail exploring also requires increased mindfulness and a constant reflective re-orientation. Nature is just the way it is, and is in continuous dynamic change. When we truly tune in to Nature we need to tune out from our obsessive self-reference. Then we can sometimes approach the experience of Suchness, being totally relaxed and present with the way it is: just these sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations and thoughts.

We can also learn a lot from Nature. In the process of opening to the diverse expressions of Nature, we suspend and can even throw off our old, habitual ways of being. This may be one way to lessen the hold of familiar habits which keep bringing us back to the theme of our 'old self'. Through challenging our old self with new views, we learn to take our own views less seriously and sometimes to see how limited they actually are. We each have our own personal 'view on life', and often forget that it is only one view. Step to one side and there is a different view, sometimes even a better view.

Our old self is held together by our habit tendencies and is reinforced by what the Buddha called the 'underlying dispositions' (anusaya). I am particularly interested in these tendencies, which I have previously referred to as 'classic hits' (October Blog), as they are the hardest to hear since they are often just playing softly in the background; yet they are very significant in directing life.

For example, during this retreat I became more aware of doubt as an underlying disposition. I know something about doubt as one of the Five Hindrances, and have some experience of working with it. However, recognizing it as a fundamental underlying disposition which is always functioning in the background was quite a sobering revelation. It's not that I have the same kind of paralyzing perplexity or numbing confusion which I associate with doubt as a hindrance. This underlying form of doubt is much more subtle and insidious. It manifests as a form of not believing certain aspects of experience, which energetically expresses itself as not surrendering or fully letting go. There is sometimes a palpable holding back or hesitancy, a 'not-sureness' in my approach to life.

This non-believing and holding back is worth investigating, as it brings me to the edge of conceit or where 'I am holding on'. And there can be quite a bit of arrogant identity in not believing - 'I don't believe that'. Some aspect of 'me' obviously believes in my non-believing. Some aspect of self is holding on. Is this the rationally-conditioned self? And what belief, view or attitude is supporting this?

One aspect is that I believe there is some wisdom in non-believing as well. Believing too easily may disguise an intellectual laziness to investigate more thoroughly, or an emotional need to believe due to underlying insecurity. I am especially wary of the 'herd mentally', 'fadism' or 'cultism'. When something becomes fashionable or someone becomes popular, I notice my reservations increasing. Some views are so well-packaged or presented so skilfully that they can seem irresistible. This is particularly noticeable when emotional issues are presented in some pseudo-reasonable form. The underlying emotions high-jack the supposedly reasonable discussion, giving birth to 'fuzzy' or 'fudgy logic', and the basis for wise reflection is lost. I have also seen the damage resulting from unreflective belief: defensive righteousness, confused and disillusioned followers, the anger of betrayal, etc.

This doubting tendency is amplified by being in Thailand, where one hears about many things which give occasion for doubt. People speak openly about ghosts, celestial beings, 'mystical beings' such as nāgas and spirits of deceased people, as well as psycho-normal events and the special powers of certain monks. When I first heard about them I would dismiss them immediately as superstition. However, at one point I realized that this attitude was very arrogant, and was actually due to the fact that I myself had not had any such experiences. Other people considered them to be true. For these kinds of experiences my doubting now manifests as 'don't know' or 'could be' rather than outright dismissal.

Ideally non-believing can allow some reflective space to consider things more widely and deeply. Holding back to give some space for reflection may not sound all that bad; however, the real issue is, 'What aspect of self is holding back?'. There is often some fear there, perhaps basically the fear of being overwhelmed, but also fear of being drawn into something which is hard to get out of. It is often harder to let go of a view than not adhere to one in the first place. Is this flexibility or indecision?

Doubt is transcended at the first level of awakening. This does not mean that one then simply believes everything. Rather, as with all the 'defilements', a major transformation takes place. Some forms of doubt, such as of the teaching or the practice, completely fall away. Other forms of doubt become transformed into wisdom. Everything has some element of truth to it. Wisdom is the ability to discern what that element is. Thus some things ought not to be believed, some things should be further considered and some things are worth believing or having some confidence in until we know the truth of them directly for ourselves. Ideally, we then gain some experience in maintaining the skilful balance between the Spiritual Powers of 'knowing wisdom' and 'faith in the not-yet known' which leads on to ever-deepening insight.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Old Self?
I am now back at Jom Gom Mountain Monastery, where it is quite cool and refreshing. This is the best season to be here, with dry, sunny days and a fresh northerly wind. The leaves are falling and the soft sunlight gives the sense of a long temperate-climate autumn. Recently an out of season rainfall has temporarily refilled the streams. With morning temperatures of 14C-16C, many people are complaining about the cold while huddling around smoky fires.

For the last month I was in Bangkok for dental treatment. What started out as repairing a broken tooth turned into an extensive treatment programme which has included three fillings, two root canals and two bridges. Yet to come are one crown and a teeth guard. Khun Meaw and Khun Tun have been exceedingly generous to arrange the appointments, provide transport to and from appointments and, together with family and friends, meeting all expenses. My only part was to be a good patient and endure the noise of Bangkok. The benefit, however, of staying so long in Bangkok was that I was able to meet up with many Sangha members as they passed through. Thus I met Ajahn Achalo (Australian abbot of Anandagiri Monastery, Petchaboon Province) and Tan Pavaro (Canadian, ordained at Birken Monastery) on their way to India; Ajahn Preecha visiting from Santacittarama Monastery in Italy; Ajahn Amaro and Ajahn Jayanto on a short teaching trip to Thailand; Ajahn Viradhammo from Tisarana Monastery, Ottawa, visiting LP Sumedho and Wat Pah Pong; Ajahn Cagino from Dhammagiri Monastery (and Orphanage) in Mae Hong Son Province, as well as a number of other western monks.

View of the 'concrete jungle' of Bangkok from the roof of the Sangha residence.

On the journey back here I met someone who had just had an operation to remove a tumour on his neck. I asked him if he was fully recovered and he responded that physically he was recovered, but that he was not feeling quite his old self yet. This was the start of a discussion and reflections upon what our 'old self' really is. Fortunately, as a Buddhist he knew the Buddha's teaching that what we take to be 'self' is constantly changing, so he didn't take his loss of 'old self' seriously.

Twice over the last few months I have also had the experience of not feeling like my 'old self'. During the Rains Retreat I came down with an extremely heavy fever which was severely debilitating. I spent four days on my back and another 10 days recovering my normal strength. A side-effect of this was the strange sense of having part of the brain atrophied. At times I felt like a visitor from some other planet, gazing out of the skull at some unusual landscape which I could not quite process. Recently I took some medicine for allergy and experienced something similar. Although awake, it seemed that part of the thinking brain was asleep and could not be engaged. Although both of these experiences were quite 'peaceful' on the level of not having much mental activity, they were also not particularly clear or insightful. Especially unhelpful was trying to do some intellectual study.

It thus seems that our sense of self is just a habit. We become familiar with certain physical sensations, a certain type of mental/emotional environment and certain character traits, and then identify with them as being 'my self', even if they are not particularly pleasant or useful. Then when any of these factors change, we feel disoriented or confused. However, on closer inspection all these factors are actually changing constantly, sometimes quickly as in the case of illness, or sometimes slowly as with the ageing process. If we can acknowledge this, we can see how much energy we expend on trying to preserve a constant sense of self against the ever-changing tide of life, and how much this wisdom would allow us to flow with its ups and downs.

Of course, one of the key elements of the Buddha's teaching is the unsubstantiality of a self. Where other spiritual teachers assumed some permanent entity called Self or soul, the Buddha saw only dynamic changing processes which constitute 'I-making'. And this is not just some philosophical theory, but can be seen directly for ourselves. For example, carefully observe waking up in the morning. When consciousness starts to wake up, first there are basic sense impressions: bodily sensations, sights, sounds, etc. Then you may notice a thirst for existence: 'What is going on here?', then the grasping of identity: 'I am sensing, thinking, etc.' and the coming-into-existence of being me: 'I have to go here and do that'. It is only through clearly seeing this creative process occurring that we are able to relinquish the nourishing of it. It is much more peaceful not to create more self identity, which we then need to maintain and prevent ourselves from losing amidst the ever-changing flow of life.

The sun-parched plateau near the cave.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Fear in Solitude
There are different degrees and intensities of solitude. Ideally, in solitude we take leave of all human interaction and come face to face with our self. The guardian of self is fear. Contrary to most people's view, meeting fear is a very good sign; it shows that self is on the defensive and starting to 'reveal its colours'. It is important, however, to recognize the different forms of fear. Three of the main ones are instinctive fear, ego fear and imagined fear, which are often intertwined.
Instinctive fear is the deeply programmed survival response to any threat. One day on my morning trek down the mountain, at a particularly dark and enclosed place, my beaming headlamp picked up a large white object in the distance. I froze in my steps as a sudden burst of fear arose: 'What is that?'. With senses on high alert my mind quickly began going through its memory programmes and came to the conclusion that since it was not moving or making any sound, it must be the lighter underside of a rock overhang which had not been blackened by exposure to sun and rain. As I came up closer my conclusion was re-assuringly confirmed -- it wasn't an early-morning hunter waiting in ambush or a sleeping unicorn.
Imagined fear is the fear we create through our own imagination, usually with only a minimum of sensory information. We hear an unusual sound and the mind spins off, imagining a whole range of terrible possibilities. During one prolonged heavy downpour I heard the normally dry stream bed next to my hut becoming increasingly filled with surging rain water. As I lay in my grass-roofed, bamboo-walled hut, I began to imagine it being swept off its foundations and floated down the slope. I could observe the fear which these thoughts were generating, and then turned attention back to the sound again. I noticed that even though the sound was unusually loud, it was not increasing in intensity. Thus even at the height of the deluge the flood waters were not increasing, and my fantasies were not likely to be fulfilled. When we realize that this fear is created by our own imaginative thoughts and not verified by sensory data, we can stop feeding them and the fear quickly subsides. Sometimes, however, imagined fear becomes a strong mental habit, with ego fear overtones. Through recognizing the cause-effect relationship involved, and with some degree of patience and re-training, we can break free of this habit.

Ego fear is not so easy to distinguish, as it comes in various forms. It is the pre-eminent defence of the ego/self against any threat to exposure, either as a direct warning of danger or as a means of deflecting attention. Who wants to go anywhere near fear? Lurking in the shadows there is the fear which is embedded in certain memories, especially from early childhood, which keep leaking out into consciousness. There is always the underlying existential fear of annihilation, the fear of dying, of sickness, of going mad, etc. There is the fear of any new situation, which is a combination of anxiety at facing the unknown and fear of losing control. Beneath the surface of comfortable habit there is the fear of the unknown. When I first moved into the cave up the mountain, I had to face quite a few fears because there were so many unknowns. What if I had an accident? What if I lost my way? Did snakes live in the cave? Some of these were closer to imagined fears than ego fears, except for the fear of failure to follow my idealistic plan and having to retreat to a comfortable hut near the kitchen! However, as I became familiar with the environment and made a few adjustments (carrying a mobile phone, placing a few extra path-markers, reading the snake book, developing an increased level of vigilance) these fears began to dissipate.
One of the most difficult forms of fear is irrational fear, since it is hard to know its source. Basically, if fear is not an instinctive reaction, if it is not a product of imagination, then it is a form of ego fear. This could be a response to a deep trauma of which we are as yet unconscious, or a distraction attempt by the ego to keep us deflected from seeing the truth of non-self. I noticed many times a fear arising when the mind reached subtle levels of calm – what might it discover?
The key element here, I would say, is awareness of the unknown or reaching the limit of knowing. This is where the ego/self is most insecure and vulnerable. Since everything is ultimately in constant change, most of reality is the unknown, where ego/self has no real control. And once mindfulness has gained strength, ego/self-reference becomes obsolete, even an obstacle to presence of being.
One morning as I climbed up to the plateau I met some fog,had to readjust the angle of my headlamp so that it shone more upwards than directly down on the path. The effect was quite dramatic, as the lamp now revealed more of the scenery along the sides of the path, rather than just the ground before my feet. The bushes which had previously appeared as fleeting shadows now lurched out of the darkness, and since there had been recent rain, the leaves glistened and rain droplets twinkled in the passing lamp light.
In this state of newly-lightened wonderment I also had some brief moments when I failed to recognize the path. Since I was walking, it was as if I had literally 'stepped into a new dimension'. My mind was alert, but 'empty'. For a full two seconds there was no fear, no story lines, just 'being present' without any self-reference. Then memory clicked in, I recognized where I was and the self-story began rolling again.
If our mind is settled enough, it is possible to observe fear more objectively and distinguish what kind of fear it is. Facing up to ego fear can take us right to the edge of self: What is self afraid of? What is that fear covering up? Ego/self is afraid of being found out to be ultimately just a clever illusion held in place by grasping. Reacting to fear is a grasping response. Seeing this we let go, and all is well.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Season of Solitude
The Rainy Season Retreat is now formally over and the monsoon rains have mostly abated. We are now beginning the 'cold season' with cool NE winds blowing from the mountains of Laos and mostly sunny skies. This is the best time of year here when the vegetation is still green from the rains, the streams are flowing and the meadows are ablaze with wildflowers. The wildflower display is not as spectacular as in the Swiss Alps as the flowers are small and dispersed. However, the great profusion and intermingling of the various colours conjures a subtle and delicate beauty like an Impressionist painting. And in the last two weeks several trees have burst into blossom. One is a spectacular display of white and pink starbursts. The other has simple blossoms but an intoxicating fragrance which wafts around on the breezes.

With the end of Rains Retreat and the change of season I ask myself whether I should stay in the remote cave. Is it worth trekking two and a half to three hours daily up and down the mountain? The Buddha encouraged monks to seek solitary and quiet places for meditation. However, is this just some antiquated, historic ideal?
So what is the value of solitude these days, especially when few spiritual traditions give it much value? My own experience is that in solitude the sense of self lightens, softens and relaxes. The image which comes to mind is one of those Chinese tea balls which, when placed in hot water, unfurls like a blooming flower. When we are with people we usually assume or act out one or other of the many persona we have acquired in the course of life. However, in solitude we don't need to keep feeding them or they aren't drawn out of us by other people's dramas. With the support of mindfulness and investigation we have the possibility then to listen more clearly to the sounds, noise or tune which the self is playing – we can 'tune in' to our deeper self.
Some people might say that we get the same effect from silence, however, I think the difference is that in solitude this is amplified more clearly and consistently. When we are with people, even in a quiet place, there is always some human interference, if not overtly in sight or sound, at least energetically. I think most people will acknowledge that we each have our own 'psychic space', but do you know how big that is? In front of us it is approximately four meters (twelve feet). That means that anyone coming within four meters will impinge upon our personal space, and their mental/emotional energy will have some impact upon our sense of self.
During two weeks of the Rains Retreat I went alone for daily almsround to the village on the bank of the Mekong River. For these two weeks I didn't speak to anyone in English (except myself). During that time I observed a very noticeable increase in clarity of awareness which I attributed to the continuity of practice, uninterrupted by other people's story. I was not drawn out of myself and did not have to process the mental and emotional input which we receive from others.
By not having to engage with other people we can engage more with our self. Less energy is used dealing with people's demands and projections (assumptions, expectations,) and thus more energy is available for awareness of one's own behaviour and mental activity, and especially increase the continuity which strengthens and deepens it.

So do you know what 'tune' your self is playing? I like the image of a tune or vibration as a contrast to my own tendency to lapse into conceptual thought which is much more stimulated by sight than sound. It also helps to remind me and acts an aid to broaden awareness into a 'full-being awareness' rather than just a mental activity. As we all know: truth is beyond conceptual thought. Of course, it is also beyond 'tunes' as well, however, this image can be a stepping stone to help ease us out of dependence upon thought.
Usually we have many tunes, sometimes playing at the same time. We each have our own 'theme song' playing in the background. This is our main or primal purpose for being alive, and is usually expressed by our general character traits or what I call our mental/emotional climate – for example, whether we are cheerful and positive or depressed and critical. Then we have our 'classic hits', particularly meaningful tunes which keep popping up throughout our life. Sometimes these songs are drowned out by the sound of the latest popular tune, that is, our most recent life drama.
Relating this to the Buddha's teaching (maybe somewhat obliquely), I would say that our 'theme song' is fundamentally about the way we grasp the body-mind as self. For example, if we grasp at body-mind lightly we can flow with life's changes easier and be more light-hearted. If we grasp body-mind more rigidly or desperately we are more anxious and fearful in our approach to life. The 'classic hits' perhaps correspond to what are called the seven underlying tendencies (anusaya): sensual lust, resentment, views, doubt, conceit, lust for further existence, ignorance. You may recognize some of these classics continually recurring in your life. In fact, when the newest tune is playing see if you can find its place in this list of classics? Very likely you can recognize that it is really one of these classic themes with just a new melody. And how does it relate to your theme song? Yes, notice the connection.
So what if your self is playing an unpleasant tune? Even though it may be difficult to listen to, it is very important to hear it. That tune is playing in our life anyway, whether we know it or not. If we can listen to it then we are no longer being sung by it unknowingly – we can become the listener rather than the tune itself. We then have a choice to sing along with it, find a new tune or listen to the peaceful silence.
With some consistency of listening we may come to realize that we, as listener, are ultimately none of these tunes. Although it appears that we are playing these tunes, in truth the tunes are playing us. When the tunes end what is left?