Updated: Sep 21
I’ve recently returned home from five weeks of teachings, and as I reflect back, I realize that those weeks were like taking a walk along my own spiritual path of practice. As every educator knows, though, a path is rarely linear, it spirals round and round, and if you are lucky, deeper and deeper. It also seems to have taken me to a viewpoint, from where I can only imagine the onward journey.
Fierce Equanimity Retreat
I’ve had a yoga asana practice for more than 20 years, which has energized and sustained me. Yet during a difficult time in my life, I started to wonder whether training my heart and mind as well as my body could extend the ease and contentment that I experienced during each 5-minute savasana. That’s when I fell in love with the practical, yet profound practices taught in the Zen Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. The Five Mindfulness Trainings give a present day depth to the five precepts, and map out a way to bring mindfulness into every aspect of daily life. I felt a wonderful reconnection with these teachings during the Fierce Equanimity retreat at the Tara Rokpa Centre in August, and was delighted to witness a new group take the trainings and receive a dharma name. I’ve heard subsequently that they are keen to start a sangha in Johannesburg, so let me know if you’d like to be included.
This retreat also offered a great deal of body-based practice – yoga, walking and dance – as a way to use the visceral sensations of the body to explore how we may also be feeling in the heart. These practices are also such a key to allowing the body to sit comfortably in meditation. If the body is tight and resistant, you can be quite sure that the mind is too! Over the years, my love for teaching yoga has paralleled my interest in learning mindfulness, and once I had experienced the significant benefits of a sitting practice, I felt lucky to become a mindfulness facilitator too.
Mind & Life Dialogue
Following the Fierce Equanimity retreat, we travelled to Botswana to attend the Mind & Life Dialogue on the theme of Ubuntu. Sadly His Holiness the Dalai Lama was unwell and could not attend, but the presentations were thought-provoking, and revealed how neuroscience is showing through brain imaging what meditators have known for 2600 years – that mind training produces lasting impacts on the brain, which can lead to human flourishing and have the potential to end in-group/out-group discrimination. For a great summary on this conference, please click here for the write-up by Chandasara, from Dharmagiri Retreat Centre.
This event also seemed to parallel my own life’s spiritual journey, when I had decided to study mindfulness at an academic level, in order to deepen my understanding of its psychological, physiological and spiritual potential. Coming from a Western background, I still find myself reassured when science is able to reveal what we can feel taking place as our practice deepens. It somehow makes it easier to trust the process, and as a facilitator, to use the type of language that is most accessible to different personalities.
The Power of Compassion Retreat
The next retreat – the Power of Compassion – took me forward to where I want to specialize. My first 10-day retreat, back in 2005, was about the Four Immeasurables, and during the Compassion retreat, we took these as the underlying foundation. These practices, based in kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, are the ones that have transformed my own practice more than anything. Having realized through mindfulness just how mean and critical I am to myself– and how that can spill out to those around me – the compassion practices helped me find a softer, more accepting place within myself even though I can still find plenty wrong, both inside and outside!
Compassion meditations have a dual benefit of healing wounds in the human psyche (due to our evolution and conditioning), and also transcending the self-interest that holds us back from connecting with all beings, beyond the superficial divisions of race, sex or class. My take home message from this retreat was ‘No Resistance’, a sense of letting moment-by-moment experience be witnessed without adding the painful layer of rejection and lack of acceptance. I still experience pain, of course, but sometimes remember that there is no need to add resistance to it. Over the 6 days, skillfully led by Choden, we saw how compassion can initially be used for self-healing, particularly when we learn to connect with the part of ourselves that has never been messed up – our essence, or Buddha nature. Once a certain level of healing has taken place, then we can start exploring how to act more skillfully with the people around us. Compassion takes us into the pro-social dimension where we start to see our interdependence, and makes use of the challenges of relationships to bring clarity to our own blind spots. It is also compassion and wisdom that are at the core of my shift into offering trainings for Mindul Activists.
Compassion-based Living Course
After a further train-the-trainer retreat, I was delighted to be given permission to teach the Compassion-based Living Course. This is an 8-session programme, designed to take participants of the Mindfulness-based Living Course a step further. I’ll be writing more on this later, and will set some dates for 2018.
Meditation and Mind Training Retreat
The final retreat sounded straightforward – Meditation and Mind Training – yet was the most transformative for me. These 9-days at TRC were spent in the inspirational presence of Drupon Khen Rinpoche. He laughs about his reputation as a very fierce teacher, so we were up early, and attended 6 hours of meditation and Guru Yoga, and 4-5 hours a day of teachings. His meditation instruction was deceptively simple – ‘rest naturally’, yet he transmitted a very deep commitment to shift from a worldy orientation to a dharma or truth-seeking mind. It makes the anxieties of daily life seem less significant, somehow, although I still find myself getting overwhelmed by the never-ending onslaught of communications we receive through online devices. A 5-week internet detox was an incredible way to settle my mind and re-establish its more natural pace – the pace of nature.
The Four Ordinary Foundations
Drupon Rinpoche is crystal-clear that we cannot make progress with our practice until we have learnt the basics. We can’t read before we know our alphabet. The ABC of Tibetan Buddhism is the Four Ordinary Foundations, or sometimes called the Four Thoughts. These are:
Precious Human Birth
Death and Impermanence
Karma, Cause and Effect
The Viciousness of Samsara (worldy existence)
Precious Human Birth
Since I have returned home, I have been rising much earlier than my habit patterning really enjoys, and focusing on these thoughts. To start the day with gratitude for having a body that can move freely and sit comfortably, to have leisure time to focus on practice, and a mind that can think and appreciate these aspects is truly a precious, and unusual state of affairs. Starting the day with gratitude rather than a sense of doom and responsibility is a real treat.
Death and Impermanence
I then think about death, not in a morbid fearful way, but rather with a sense that any of us could die at any time, so let’s make the most of this life. Let’s savour precious moments of connection, the blossoming of flowers, the touch of our loved ones and make a commitment to focus on the things that give meaning, in the long term, more than the short term. The Buddhist text describes life as fragile, like a water bubble, which can pop at any time. Yet while that water bubble floats into the sky, we can admire its rainbow colours, its lightness and freedom.
Karma – Cause and Effect
The third thought has also taken on a practical application for me. Karma is not a vindictive finger-wagging judge that punishes whenever we say or do something unskillful; it is just a balancing force that is triggered by our thoughts, words and actions. Say something kind, and kindness returns to us, do something compassionate and compassion will arrive when we most need it. If we live a life of virtue, we can set ourselves up for a future that is less difficult. Yet when challenges do arise, we can understand them as the delayed effect of our negative karma, from this or previous lives, and we develop resilience and understanding that for as long as we are human, we will make mistakes, and they will come back to bite us so that we can show remorse, seek forgiveness and move on.
The Viciousness of Samsara
The final thought has been quite challenging lately as my samsara – my daily worldly life – is really rather pleasant. However, we know that things change and the time will come where I experience the pain of ageing, sickness and death – my own or others. After all, I’m turning 50 next month… Thinking about the difficulties of daily life can help to shift our orientation towards spiritual concerns, which will last well beyond this life. And what I am finding is that the difficulties of daily life can then be placed in perspective, and not drain my energy quite so much, as I trust there is something bigger, more long lasting and more wonderful to keep gazing towards.
So, after thinking that the PhD was a useful step in my own growth, I am now back in primary school, focusing on my alphabet. It’s wonderful!
I received considerable input for my own practice, and ideas on how I’d like to teach others, yet the time away also left me with the sense that I’d like a more spacious daily life, with fewer self-imposed demands. This boils down to my decision to teach less for a while, as I concentrate on my own Buddhist practices, which are designed to purify the mind poisons and help me become more skillful in body, speech and mind. The aim is ultimately to help people more, rather than to help more people!