When I first decided to fully commit to living my life to a set of Buddhist ideals, I began by reading about the key elements as I described in #1 of this series, and then poured myself into meditation. I bought CDs and listened to them over and over giving me the basics plus a stepwise “easy to follow” sequence, increasing in length and with a changing focus. Sometimes the focus was on breathing, sometimes on a single colour ….. no object just a colour, sometimes on a particular flower, sometimes on a favourite place. Each time one had to “empty” ones mind, blank everything out for a minute or two, then concentrate only on the specific item or area of focus. But, it just didn’t work for me at all, something wasn’t right. There was no Buddhism involved, no Buddha Nature to the experience as I used meditation to escape my grief, and that was the heart of the problem.
Meditation is now a relatively common practice in modern life, sometimes used personally, but sometimes in organisational life, in the military and certainly in counselling and in psychotherapy. Every day people all over the world seek to relieve anxiety, stress, tiredness, exhaustion, apathy etc etc, and of course this is what I was “buying” as I purchased the many CDs and booklets I was trying to follow. I’m a very disciplined person so definitely followed their processes and schedules, but didn’t really “get” the depth or more specific and widespread change I sought. So, next step, a Buddhist weekend retreat, and I chose to visit the Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre at the old Conishead Priory in Ulverston in Cumbria. This was near my original home in Cumbria so it felt good to be going there for what I required.
“The Priory has played an important role in the life of the local community; formerly as a hydropathic spa and a convalescent home for miners and for the past twenty five years it has been home to an international college for Buddhist studies. When the Buddhist community moved into Conishead Priory it had lain empty for 4 years and was entirely derelict and close to collapse. Over the past three decades Manjushri Buddhist Centre has raised almost £1,000,000 and invested thousands of hours of voluntary labour to eradicate dry rot, and bring the building back into use. The Buddhist Community has rescued and restored Conishead Priory and has secured the future of this locally important historic building.”
The retreat was just for three days, my wife has attended 7 day Vippasana Buddhist retreats where strict silence is observed, but that wasn’t for me at this stage of my personal development. Quite naturally my chosen retreat was attended by people from all walks of life, though maybe 75% were women. Overall the sessions were split between three themes, one focused on the teachings of Buddha, one on “life’s suffering” such as stress, grief, pain etc, and one on meditation. We had spare time to ourselves to practice “walking meditation” along the shoreline, through the woods or around the gardens if we wished. It was a mixed experience, all sessions were run by people who were monks or novice monks, some good at getting their points across and some not so good; I felt quite judgemental at times and then guilty about it ….. but maybe that was the point.
I began to realise that what separates Buddha’s meditation and mindfulness from a secular approach is that he does not teach it as a standalone skill! It has to be one part of the Eightfold Path, surrounded by and leading to a full realisation of the Four Holy Truths and the end of “suffering”. It had to be “wise mindfulness”, or samma sati in the Pali language. I suppose “fully integrated” is the best way to describe it so I began to understand better how to integrate Buddhist thought into my meditation which I now needed to practice lots, plus a specific concept within Buddhism concerning impermanence.
“Everything changes. Nothing lasts. Even though we know this is true, we often resist change and struggle with uncertainty. When we learn to embrace the truth of impermanence we can let go of worry, accept our experiences, keep things in perspective and develop a flexible mind. In this way we can live lightly and wisely through unpredictable times.”
What was spoken about, discussed, then amplified in Buddhist terms was how everything in the cosmos was impermanent, starting with the obvious such as the weather, the seasons, skin cells, brain cells, life itself. Then getting personal, ourselves, our parents, our children ……. inevitable impermanence. Then into daily things …. a boring bus ride, a stressful traffic jam, a tiring queue at an airport, a headache, a pleasant afternoon in the garden, a lovely glass of wine, an interesting morning in a museum …. all impermanent and with an ending. A lot of time was spent on this in discussion as well as some personal reflection time. Of course it hit me that this was one way of looking at the loss of our son a few months earlier, it still didn’t ease things, but it placed it in a wider context. Impermanence was the cornerstone of Buddhism!
Leading on from the impermanence sessions were inputs that focused how we experienced all of these things in our minds, moment by moment ….. the traffic jam, the airport queue, the headache, a glass of wine, and the realisation that it was our mind that determined how we felt, we were “judging” the experience rather than just recognising it, and accepting it, in other words pure focused mindfulness of it. And it was here that I first heard those words from the opening sentence of The Dhammapada:
“All states of being are determined by mind, it is mind that leads the way”
I ended the retreat with a far greater clarity overall plus these two major concepts in my head, the issue of impermanence, and the issue of how we allow our minds to control us rather than the other way around. And so I now had two Buddhist “things” to learn more about and incorporate into my meditation. It was a start, a new start and better than the previous start. But, there was still a thought at the back of my mind that something far greater had happened, my VIEW of life as a whole had changed, and that if I could fully grasp and “live” this VIEW then …….
Next Buddha & Me, #4 A View of Reality