I was on retreat last week at Purelands retreat centre near to Samye Ling. The retreat was led very skilfully by Lama Zangmo and the main theme was impermanence.
The problem with us humans is that we believe things will stay the same and don’t generally like change. We also believe we can control our lives and plan what will happen. These beliefs cause us to suffer because they are contrary to reality. The reality is that everything is impermanent. Our experience and things in our lives are changing all the time due to myriad causes and conditions beyond our control. Scary!
So we like things to be a particular way. We work very hard to keep it that way. Then when things change due to circumstances beyond our control we get upset! A more sane approach, which is more in tune with reality, is to really appreciate and enjoy things when they are the way we like them, knowing things will inevitably change and being open to that change.
We had long periods of silence on the retreat and lots of opportunity to practice with breath as our support – awareness of the breath. The key instruction was to be present at all times, during sessions and between sessions. I did my best.
One thing I noticed, was that my mind was constantly moving into the future. Testing out different future scenarios and planning, planning, planning. When I dropped the storylines, underneath was fear. Fear of what might happen, fear of failure and a desire for certainty. I also recognised an assumption that if I planned enough, I would remain in control.
However, the teachings we received on impermanence, which I know from my experience to be true, contradicted this assumption. I’m not in control. I cultivated some fearlessness by bringing to mind one of my teachers who had this characteristic. I continued to practice.
Then the insight emerged. The only way to prepare for the future is to be present now. Now is the only moment there is. Being present and responding skilfully to what is happening is the only way to set up skilful habits for the future.
It takes courage for me to let go of the habit of compulsive planning. So when my mind wanders to the future. I notice. I remind myself of the futility of planning and that the best thing for the future is to be present now. This generates a squiggle of fear in my belly and heart. Then I rest back on the breath.
My habit of planning is a strong one and will take some time to wear out, through repeatedly reminding myself of the reality of impermanence and then coming back to the present. But I feel that this retreat and this insight are a good step in that direction.
I remember two of Tilopa’s six words of advice:
Let go of what may come.
No need to try and figure anything out.
I struggle with both of these instructions in my practice and in my daily life. But I’m determined and diligent. I’m also kind to myself and smile knowingly at these habits like recognising an old friend. Then I let them go.
Heather is leading the first course in our series of Mindfulness training – Level 1 Mindfulness Course – Being Present – 25-27 October 2019. The weekend can be attended as the beginning of a four weekend course, or taken in isolation as a taster or a retreat.
Meet Heather and Graeme in this video and hear about the course.