Walking along the path to Tushita Meditation Centre, I walked past the ‘silence please’ sign feeling the usual first-day-at-school nerves. This wasn’t my first silent retreat but you never quite know what to expect when entering the murky depths of your own mind. A touch of trepidation is probably wise.
An introductory course had started the day before and a girl with a desperate look in her eyes sidled up to me. Her eyes scanned the courtyard furtively whilst she whispered to ask if she could use my phone to message her mum. She’d forgotten to tell her she’d be out of contact for ten days.
Moments later I was joined on a bench overlooking the beautiful pine forest by a good-looking guy with a cheeky grin. He sat unusually close and reached into his bag for pen and paper. He scrawled the words ‘do you have toilet paper?’ and raised his eyebrows in hope.
Bit disappointing, but this evidence that we humans are incapable of so much as messaging our mothers or wiping our behinds without the help of other humans was quite fitting. A common theme the course returned to was gratitude for our fellow humans and feeling the part that we play in each other’s lives. From the clothes we wear to the food we eat, nothing comes to us without the cooperation and caring of our fellow humans.
The course was based on the meditation practices of Tibetan Buddhism and was taking place at the Tushita Meditation centre in Dharmashala. Tushita is famous for its courses, as is its sister centre the Kopan Monastery in Nepal.
The centres were founded by a Buddhist monk called Lama Yeshe back in the 70s. Lama Yeshe was discovered by the hippies who went to Asia convinced that there was more to life than meets the eye, and a better way than mindless capitalism, empty consumerism and war. Lama Yeshe began to teach these westerners, learning English in the process.
At the beginning of the course we were given one of his books to read in our downtime. It was short and to the point. He wasn’t interested in trying to convert anyone to anything. He didn’t really have to. People made arduous overland journeys to Asia and quit smoking so much weed to hear and understand what he had to say, rather than having him knocking on their front doors, intent on making a convert.
He did eventually go on to teach in the west and to write books, peppering his speech with words clearly picked up from the hippies. The book we were given on arrival is a transcript of a talk he gave in Melbourne, Australia. The questions he was asked were often esoteric but he quickly grounded them:
‘Q. What’s the best way to attain enlightenment oneself? Where does one find enlightenment?
Lama: By dealing with your own mind. By knowing your own mind’s nature. That’s the best thing. Otherwise you just collect ideas; too many ideas – “This idea; this religion; this religious idea.” All you do is collect ideas, but you have no understanding of how they relate to your own mind. Thus, you end up with nothingness. The best thing, the real solution to your own problems, is to face them; to try to understand their nature…by constantly observing your own everyday life – how your mind interprets your family and friends, how your mind interprets what you feel – by always checking, you will realize that what makes life complicated is your own misconceptions. You will understand that your problems come from you. Now you are starting to learn. The more you understand, the more progress you make, the closer you get to liberation. If you have no understanding, even if you learn countless intellectual ideas, they’re just ideas; you’re wasting your life.”
With practical experiments to carry out and exploring your own experience, it’s understandable that this approach appeals to skeptical, cynical Western travellers who are more likely to worship an iphone than a god and who only believe things that have been tested double-blind in a laboratory.
A western monk called Venerable Namgyel taught our course. Growing up in Liverpool in an Irish family and then emigrating to Australia, he made it perfectly clear that the saffron robes and quirky name didn’t mean that he came into existence sitting on a lotus in the middle of a lake.
I suspect that if he hadn’t become a monk he might have been a stand up comedian. He was expressive and emphatic with a cheeky sense of humour and nothing was off limits. His dramatisations of human nature were hilarious and he was clearly deeply compassionate but without being sickly sweet.
When talking about cognitive behavioural therapy, currently one of the most common forms of therapy in the west, Namgyel raised a dramatic woe-is-me arm to his forehead and declared “These cognitive people have stolen everything Buddhism has…except the Buddha of course.”
Part way through the course one of the students commented: “I get all of this, all what you’re saying is helpful and useful for my life, it’s just this Buddha guy that bothers me.”
Namgyel cracked up laughing, as is his way. Then he gently and thoughtfully helped the student explore what was bothering him whilst reminding him that no one was asking him to believe anything. He seemed genuine and I was impressed. It’s hard not to be offended when someone apparently disrespects something we believe in, especially when it comes to the big guns (or the big buddha in this case). It takes a certain level of development to respond so effortlessly in this way. This is a man I can learn from, I thought.
We are all insane
During the course of the ten days, we had daily discussion groups, getting the chance to exercise our vocal chords and explore our ideas whilst trying not to ride roughshod over the beliefs of others or cling to closely or blindly to our own.
What is sanity? Was the first topic up for discussion.
It turns out that by Buddhist standards we are all completely mad. This was rather pleasing news as it’s something that is abundantly evident in a whole myriad of ways. From being addicted to facebook to blowing each other up, we all have our own version of crazy.
In Buddhism, you are only sane if you are enlightened. This was rather less pleasing news as it was setting the sanity bar rather high. Namgyel set us the challenge of being ‘sane’ by the 3 September.
“Come on people, sanity by the 3rd of September, better get to it” he declared in his sing-song aussie twang, clapping his hands with glee, eyes twinkling like mad.
He explained that enlightenment doesn’t mean levitating off into the sky and metamorphosing into some sort of omniscient god as our imaginations might have us believe. Being enlightened simply means seeing things clearly. Ahhh yes, say our western minds, seeing things clearly, that is sensible and helpful and utterly believable, I will absolutely have some of that please.
Of course this ‘seeing things clearly’ probably does go a bit further than our rather cloudy minds could imagine and I suspect that if Namgyel was talking to Buddhists he wouldn’t be playing down the big E quite so much.
We discuss sanity so we have an idea of what it means in Buddhism and in our culture and to us personally. The discussion is revealing, especially the point that there doesn’t seem to be much of an interest in increasing sanity in the west, as long as you are a productive member of society, not harming yourself or anyone else then you are basically fine.
At the other end of the scale, there is far more interest and the list of new mental disorders grows year on year, with plenty of controversy surrounding this very narrow idea of what it is to be sane. Of course we accept insanity if people are productive with it, like the creative genius Van Gogh, but anything else attracts stigma. With the gung-ho medicating of all these new ‘conditions’, I wonder if we are losing a few Van Goghs in a bid to keep everyone on greyscale.
So with ‘sanity’ as our goal we set to understanding exactly how we are insane. Oh let us count the ways. Rather conveniently, someone (I suspect that Buddha guy) has already counted the ways and apparently we have 84,000 delusions.
Namgyel jokes that as he has been working at his delusions for a long time he only has 83,999 delusions left to go. Those Buddhist monks are so damn humble and my hopes for a bedtime story about his supernatural powers are dashed.
According to Buddhist teachings, delusions are the root of all problems in the world. Religions are not the problem, guns are not the problem, facebook is not the problem… our own deluded minds are the problem.
This is more of an inside-out (as opposed to an outside-in) outstanding of the world and it makes inherent sense to me. Thought precedes action. Thought creates. It is going for the root cause.
Buddhist teachings suggest working with our minds to free ourselves of some of these delusions. Rather conveniently there is a shortcut that allows you to free yourself of the vast majority of the delusions in one hit.
This shortcut involves realising the true nature of reality. Unfortunately this requires slightly more than the 2-second attention span that most of us currently have as our clunky operating system so that is a tad ambitious… probably wasn’t going to happen by the 3rd of September anyway.
So as well as having clumsy childlike attempts at realising the ultimate nature of reality (tricky) we also try to work on cutting down on our delusions by looking at our experience of emotions and all the crazy ways we choose to handle them (or not handle them in most cases).
‘It’s drama or dharma, people’… and don’t forget to die
The retreat experience – the silence, the lack of distractions, the meditation – gives you ample opportunity to notice how you respond to the world and how that makes you feel and behave, and it gives you ample opportunity to try to create more helpful neural pathways in your gloriously malleable mass of grey matter.
According to the humble and hilarious Namgyel we always have a choice:
“It’s drama or dharma, people” (always to be said in a gleeful, tv presenter voice)
So how can this ‘dharma*’ choice help? We soon learn that Buddhism is rather keen on antidotes and it has plenty of them. Every problem has a practice that can help. For example, Buddhists are very keen on death. Actually, the whole main meditation hall at Tushita is death themed. It’s pretty wild.
The point of this is not to depress people but to help them to live (and die) better. For the most part we live like we’ll never die. When people get diagnosed with a life-limiting condition they tend to get a fair old whack of perspective. Buddhism recommends ongoing shots of perspective, rather than reaching the deathbed, freaking out because it’s something you’ve never come to terms with, and then wondering what the hell you were playing at your whole life.
It turns out that these shots of perspective are recommended in a fairly regular dose. Twice a day in fact. Namgyel recommends we practice thinking we are going to die twice daily, at mid afternoon and then again in the evening. Quite a schedule.
This does seem a little extreme and I can’t imagine many of us will take on this practice with full gusto but even a little more awareness of the whole death issue would understandably be rather an effective antidote for things like procrastination, loss of perspective, even fear and anxiety…unless the fear and anxiety were about dying. In that case it would be a little counterproductive.
OMG I’m in Love!
When they’re not talking about death, Buddhists are very big on love. Actually this is their favourite subject and understandably it receives a warmer reception than the whole death thing. Although they are quick to point out that this is not your garden-variety romantic love that they are talking about.
Richard, our Dutch meditation teacher (not a monk), half-jokingly warned us off falling in love on silent retreat, ‘Yes, it happens every time, you think you have something special with this person, little smiles, you put your shoes next to each other – so cute! – you make your stories but then you speak at the end of the retreat and this person is nothing like you imagined! You can’t even stand this person! What a terrible, rude person they are!”
Richard also felt the need to warn us off falling in love with him specifically. (Apparently it happens. A lot. And he’s not available. And if he does smile at you it doesn’t mean he fancies you. So don’t bother leaving him a note on his desk. It’s just awkward.) We were suitably bemused by the need for this talk but who knows, people do go a bit nuts on retreat so maybe falling deeply in love with Dutch Richard and his blonde locks is a persistent problem against the backdrop of bald heads and monks’ robes.
Anyway, no, not this kind of graspy ‘love’ but something much deeper and nothing to do with how you imagine that person might fulfill you. Buddhism defines love as ‘I want you to be happy’ and Mahayana Buddhist practitioners aim to cultivate this kind of loving compassion for everyone (actually for every sentient being), based on the understanding that everyone just wants to be happy, and everyone deserves to be, regardless of whether that person is our best friend, our sworn enemy or a complete stranger.
The idea isn’t to become a soggy doormat (a common misconception with Buddhism). Namgyel reminds us that if someone misbehaves it might be necessary to use strong words or strong action but being able to do this from a place of love and wisdom, not hurt or anger, means the words and action will be appropriate and effective, rather than harmful and counterproductive.
We consider the blocks to this kind of love. The mind is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a tool. It’s a filter that allows us to make sense of the world but it’s heavily biased based on our past experiences. The mind filters the vast range of sensory information coming into it and we largely filter according to what we already believe.
We see what we want to see. We decide we don’t like someone and amass more and more evidence to support the idea they’re a ‘bad’ person. The problem comes when we take what the mind tells us as the ‘truth’, which we often do because we’re not particularly conscious of what we’re thinking half the time.
A silent retreat is the perfect setting to notice this tendency of the mind and to loosen the grip of habitual thought patterns. Rather than being a peaceful break from the world, the lack of any distractions puts thoughts, beliefs and actions under the microscope.
In the discussion group people shared their experiences. The annoyance over people banging doors or talking on a silent retreat (oh the outrage). Mainly little(ish) things but it’s exactly the place to start. Practising with the smaller things we don’t lose ourselves in the drama of who did what to whom, rolling around in our own victimisation and outrage like a pig in muck, as we love to do with the bigger, juicier problems.
With less ‘hot’ annoyances we could explore the mechanisms in play, the faulty reasoning, the generalisations, the distortions – all the mind tricks that throw us into deep foggy madness. The idea then is to extend yourself up to the bigger stuff.
Firing up those neural pathways
The discussions were kept to the minimum. Mainly we learnt techniques and then we tried them out in meditation, working on those neural pathways with some serious brain gym.
For Buddhist practitioners, the plasticity of the brain has long been known. Now neuroscience has agreed that yes, the brain does change throughout life, new connections can be made, old ones severed. How we use our brain affects how it develops.
In the mornings we worked on shamatha mediation, bringing the mind to a single-pointed focus. This gets the mind a little more focused and capable of seeing things a little more deeply and clearly, rather than just running round doing its crazy monkey impression. We focused on the breath, returning again and again to this focus, not engaging with the minds desire to swing, jump, recoil and grasp.
In the afternoons we used this more concentrated mind to explore, trying to develop insight into the human condition, into the vagaries of our own minds. We meditated on compassion, death, gratitude, forgiveness, equanimity, working on those neural pathways, making positive new connections, seeing through faulty beliefs.
Along with the silence, the discussions and Namgyel’s teaching the effect was powerful and the possibilities inspiring. Although no one reached ‘sanity’ before the 3rd of September, we did have a clearer idea the delusions we most needed to work on and how we could go about doing it, as well as a burning desire to do so.
“The mind is everything. What you think you become.” Buddha
Little light, burning bright
On the final evening we did a light offering, heading outside to the stupa we each took a butterlamp. Lighting each other’s candles, protecting our little flames from the rain. We were asked to connect to some purpose or wish that felt meaningful for us. For the Buddhists it could be to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings. For the non-Buddhists it might be a wish to help a family member who was sick, or a desire to be more loving and calm in everyday life.
Some of us chanted, some prayed, some walked around the stupa, some stood quietly. We were from all over the world – Israelis, Indians, British, Australian, French, Sri Lankan, Slovenian – and from all different cultures and religions – Hindus, Jews, Christians, atheists, Buddhists.
It struck me as an important and powerful moment. Rituals are sadly lacking from material life but it is something that could be harnessed regardless of religious persuasion (or lack of). Of course a real world action is worth more than intentions and symbolic acts, but such acts help us reconnect to what is truly important in life, something that all too easily gets buried beneath the stress and blur of our daily lives. And in reconnecting in this way, we can reignite our resolve and be more likely to make those positive actions.
After all the candles were lit, we stood in the drizzle and watched in silence, drawing in the peace and the power of our positive intentions, strengthening our resolve to go back out into the world and act from this place of peaceful power.
It’s drama or dharma, people. We have a choice.
*Dharma is a complex term and the meaning varies. It can mean the system of analysis taught by Buddha with the aim of helping us to understand suffering and remove its causes – that is, the techniques we use that help us to see more clearly, to be wiser and kinder. It’s sort of the opposite of drama. Read more on wiki