This week there is the first Kagyu Monlam (prayer festival) at Samye Ling. There are also morning and evening teachings by visiting Lama Drupon Rinpoche. So I am driving over to Samye Ling twice a day and working at home in between. Even though my days are quite hectic (although it’s just day two of seven) I am feeling energised by the positive atmosphere at Samye Ling and by the teachings, which have been excellent.
One key theme is that we learn from the teachings only if we apply them to ourselves and in this way see where we are going wrong (what increases suffering) in our practice and in our life. Once we see where we are going wrong, then there is an opportunity to change and gradually reduce the suffering of ourselves and others. If we don’t see where we are going wrong there is no possibility of change occurring.
This reminds me very much of the experiential approach we take when teaching mindfulness. Intellectual knowledge does not help us much in becoming more mindful and kind in our lives.
It’s a bit like running a marathon. We wouldn’t dream of training for a marathon by reading about it. Yet so many of us would rather read a book on mindfulness than practice it. I myself feel I have read enough books on mindfulness to support my practice to the end of my days! However, I am open to reading more!
If we can apply the teachings on mindfulness and kindness to our lives by practice, then this enables us to see the habit patterns that cause us to suffer. Once seen there is the opportunity for a more skilful habit to be reinforced and to grow, such as a habit of self-compassion and in this way we gradually transform.
That said it is often very challenging for us to see how we have developed unskillful habits over our lives that cause us to suffer, such as a habit of self-criticism. Especially if that habit contradicts the view of ourself as a mature and together person.
I recall once on retreat I had an insight in which I recognised I had been quite cruel to someone over an extended period of time. I was devastated by this recognition and was in floods of tears for a couple of days. I was sad that I had been cruel, but I was devastated that seeing this habit contradicted my view of myself – my self – as being a truly kind person. My egocentric view of my self was blown and my egocentric self really didn’t like it. It was embarrassing and I felt a lot of shame.
This was a great learning for me about the extent my view of myself meant to me and how it was interwoven with how I thought others viewed me. I was shocked how my remorse for being cruel was dwarfed by my devastation about my self image! Thankfully, as I have come to accept myself more as I am, my view and others view of my self means less to me now – most of the time! And that is a big relief.
So mindfulness practice can be tricky and at that time I was not so skilled in self-compassion or self-acceptance. I recognise now that we are all like this, that we all have unskillful habits – such as cruelty to those who challenge us – based on our previous experience and conditioning and that as we did not choose many of our past experiences – they just happened to us – it is not our fault. We can let ourselves off the hook, be a compassionate mess and take responsibility for our unskillful habits going forward. I have practiced a lot of kindness since then and the habit I recognised of cruelty is much diminished – although it can still be triggered!
What I describe above are key approaches on our Level 1 training: Being Present, which provides a thorough grounding in compassion based mindfulness over four weekends spaced out over nine months or so – long enough for a regular and stable mindfulness practice to develop.
I can recommend this approach, after having guided hundreds of people through it, if you would like to be more present in your life, more joyful about all the good things in life and more calm in the face of life’s challenges. Weekend one can be done first, before committing to the other three weekends.
One of our key practices is settling the mind – here is a video to watch about it:
And here is a practice to try: Settling the Mind.
Sit comfortably and it will take about 10 minutes.
If you have already done Level 1, think of it as revision with a beginner’s mind.
Do you spot any habit patterns?