Last week I had a busy work week, lots of busyness going on at home, a wee holiday up to North Wales with family and then I had my young grandchildren to stay – they are 7 and 5… And so although I have many tales to tell about all that – it wasn’t exactly the most mindful week I’ve ever had! – of course I picked up on a lot of mind states and subtle dukkha and not-so-subtle dukkha (the state of unsatisfactoriness) (wishing for things to be different from this moment- peaceful?!) (Bring back lockdown!) and I’m just coming back to settle down again now, I’m pretty exhausted. So I’m not going to go into the mindful day-to day of all that – I’ve decided to instead go on a bit of a reverie this week, more of a waffle than a blog – as I heard that Samye Ling will be closed until at least the end of the year and my dear auntie and I are feeling a tad bereft about that. We live miles apart; it’s where we like to meet up for several reasons; to visit my mum’s memorial in the prayer wheel house, to hear the Scottish accents of our homeland, to attend courses, and enjoy our ‘sits’ bathing in the tearoom’s rich atmosphere of colourful lovingkindness as we enjoy our very special Sky Chai. I miss my auntie and the tea rooms and dare I say it the shop! We always buy another book, while the echo of the Lama’ Ringu Tulku’s teaching rings in my ears:
You can have many many books which might bring you knowledge, but to gain wisdom you must sit on the cushion!
Maybe I need a cushion too….
Of course Samye Ling has felt like home to me maybe because the preliminary mindfulness teachings are all about coming home to ourselves, finding home within ourselves and finding that resilience comes from this place – it was always right here! and so the place has become dear in my heart too, like home – a nourishing place where I learned how to find stillnes within all the busyness of my distracting thoughts. In the morning Daily Sit session Vin quoted Karmapa: ‘you just need to remember to come home!’
When I first started studying Mindfulness with the Mindfulness Association, I had already had some beginner’s meditation training at Samye Ling and was lucky enough to attend a 10-day Introduction to Buddhism course there (which my auntie and I cheekily called Buddhist Boot camp). The course was well organised and ran like clockwork with barely a moment for Sky Chai – we had tours and talks and beginners’ practices, art and symbolism of the Tibetan thangkas and deities explained, and of course we were shown round the incredible temple.
The foundations of our mindfulness practice were consolidated over the 10 days – we were given a variety of different supports for our mindfulness to try – breath, sound, and at one stage a pebble, which we were asked to collect from the river during our break. This was harder than it looked, I mean just gazing at a stone, sounds easy? but our teacher helped us to notice our thinking – our thoughts around failure to focus – thoughts of – “I can’t even look at a stone! I’m such a failure!”
I remember another perfect and useful analogy of a butterfly – our focus lands like a butterfly on the pebble and soon it takes off along with our thinking and as soon as we notice that, we gently and kindly bring our butterfly-focus back to the pebble. That’s a beautiful one that works for me. The first stages of mindfulness are hard work. I always refer to it as work, and still do. Mindfulness practice is practice because I need to practise all the time! Vin told us that Jongey Mingyur Rinpoche says “Short time – Many times!” – just do a little a lot. This doesnt feel like such hard work. I have a feeling that the teachers will say that if I think it’s hard work I am trying too hard!
I now had some experience of managing to separate myself from and being able to observe thoughts, catching that moment when I notice I am distracted and was beginning to experience some success at letting go of them. Other analogies suggested to help me with this task included – thoughts as bubbles rising from the bottom of the sea – thoughts as clouds obscuring the clear blue sky, thoughts like fish swimming by – the mind like a wild horse galloping by… I tried many ways, (the Buddha apparently ecouraged to teach in many ways because our minds are all conditioned in different ways) so some of these resonated and some didn’t -and slowly I managed to be able to see that I was not my thoughts. I am shocked how long this took to really get – at how deeply entrenched I was in identification with my thoughts – and then so shocked at how blind to that ignorance I had been. This was a paradigm shift of great magnitude.
During one more advanced session we were asked to think of a time when we were offended by something someone had said to us. We were asked to recreate that in the mind, then we were invited to sit for a while in contemplation asking ourselves “who is offended?”. Dropping a question like a pebble into the deep pool of the mind is something we come to in the Mindfulness Association insight module – that’s where we find a deeper wisdom. But I was not quite ready for that depth at that time – my mind was reeling trying to find something to hang on to with the question. I couldn’t get my head round it. Who was offended? eh?
Now I’m smiling because even now after all this time, as soon as I feel I have ‘achieved something’ and made a great step forward (hello striving, achievement, hello ego) – I realise there is no linear progress with mindfulness it seems to go round and round revisiting the same place but going down into it a little more– I still do keep getting lost in anxiety or stories (albeit for a much shorter time) so coming back to basic practices I find a little more is revealed each time. I will always go back to basics for this reason and offer myself wholeheartedly to the simplest task of staying with the breath; now I have such deep reverence and gratitude for this simple yet life changing act of self-compassion. Through this seemingly minimal and gentle activity of coming home – I have learned to stay alert for the egoic grasping and aversion to notions like achievement or failure – pride and arrogance.
Coming back to the breath engenders a soothing stillness that I can access at any moment in my day. As a result of daily and sustained practice this now connects me instantly to a long long lineage of teachings which fundamentally benefits not only me but those around me in ever widening circles. I owe my gratitude to founders Chogyam Trungpa and Akong Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe who came from Tibet all this way and founded this wonderful centre of radiating goodness called Samye Ling – Tibetan Centre in the borderlands of Scotland – where you can get the best cup of Sky Chai in those wonderful tearooms (just as soon as the centre opens again), if I see you, I’ll get you one.
Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost.
I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I still don’t see it. I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place. It isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it there,
I still fall in. It’s habit. It’s my fault. I know where I am. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down a different street.
Portia Nelson’s poem really resonates with me- a wonderful description of my mindfulness journey – it’s good to find the humour in our falling into the holes.
This week, the challenge is to come back to the breath quite simply when your mind has wondered off to a storyline (or fallen into a hole!) – and to observe the effect this has on your body and mind.
I will be doing this with you!
Stay well, stay mindful, sit on that cushion, and watch out for those holes.