NEW MOON – No More Thorns

If you walk the path 
you will arrive at the end of suffering. 
Having beheld this myself, 
I proclaim the Way 
which removes all thorns. 

Dhammapada v. 275

It is not necessary to move through life perpetually afraid of being skewered by the barbs of painful human interaction. All beings, including the Buddha himself, are subject to the eight worldly winds: praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, honour and insignificance. However, awakened beings are so completely transparent, so completely free from resistance, that they are always able to accord with it. They live unobstructed in their relationship with everything and everybody. Having walked the path to its end, they know beyond all doubt that to cling is to suffer. Wisdom shows them how to hold to life without creating pain, without spoiling it.

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A Four Day Retreat at Gaia House

The following is an email interview with Simon, one of our Sangha members, who recently attended a retreat at Gaia House, a meditation retreat centre near Newton Abbott in Devon, offering silent meditation retreats in the Buddhist tradition.

When did you decide to go and why?

Had my eye on the retreat (‘Breath by Breath’ with Jenny Wilks and Jaya Karen Rudgard) from November last year and was keen to explore Anapanasati (Mindfulness with Breathing) in a retreat setting. 

What preparations did you make, what did you need to take (or were, or were not allowed to take)?

I prepared by reading Larry Rosenberg’s ‘Breath by Breath’ on which the retreat was based. I needed to take a tent (I could only get a camping place) and half the contents of my flat, 90% of which was completely unnecessary. ‘A bag with a toothbrush and a comb in’ would have sufficed. And a change of clothes. . . .sun cream, bug spray etc etc [probably needed some earplugs as well]. We were supposed to leave our mobile phones in our cars or I think they had a safe if you didn’t trust yourself. That was a blessing: a four day tech fast.

How was your journey to get there (and back)?

The journeys, both there and back, were fraught with dukkha. I made a whistle-stop tour along the way to visit friends from the mainland, a coffee here, a lunch there, a quick visit to the dentist and hygienist and a six mile run around Dursley golf course for good measure (I stayed overnight at a friend’s). Driving across Dartmoor on the morning of the retreat was nice. I’d forgotten how beautiful it was, not having been for a good 10 years. Journeying home was hard work. Often after retreats as soon as you hit the main roads you want to go and hide under a hedge because, well, those lorries are big and noisy and vaguely terrifying. On this occasion, I was momentarily possessed of dhammic superpowers (concentration, clarity, equanimity) and found everyone to be wading through treacle whilst I waltzed through the Devon Expressway Esso like a veritable master of flow. Two hours of hollering to rock music (to try and stay awake) along A roads and a full (read: full-bladdered) 60 minutes in Southampton’s rush hour traffic soon brought me back down to migraine humanity on Planet Dukkha, where I belong of course, by way of a midnight ferry after curry with friends and a Leonard Cohen drive home to Insomnia Bay. 

What type of course did you undertake and why?

The course was based on the Anapanasati Sutta and we went through one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness on each of the days we were there: mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of the mind and of dhammas. I’d been studying the Satipatthana Sutta and there is a clear relationship between the two suttas. They pretty much cover the same ground and I wanted to put into practice what I’d been reading about in a formal setting.

What was the environment like and how did it affect you?

The environment was very pleasant and peaceful and conducive to practice. The weather was pretty much perfect. The animals (the birds and the rabbits) seemed to sense that we humans were not a threat and would beak/snout about among us as we did our walking meditation on the lawn. Relaxation and equanimity were more or less an inevitability. 

How did you get on with the other attendees and did that change and if so why?

Vibrations were good between most people as far as I could tell. It was a silent retreat so it was all just smiles and bows and emanations of what I assume was mostly warmth. Everyone seemed calm and content. Although there was one chap who was seemingly doing all he could to control his long stertorous (was it Ujjayi?) breathing as if he was rehearsing for the part of Darth Vader in the next Star Wars movie. He was also, on the third day, taking rather noisy, possibly frustrated or even angry, swigs from his water bottle before banging it down on the floor. I think some notes of complaint were made and he simmered down a bit by the evening so those of us in his vicinity were able to return to our own breathing. 

What did you get out of your time there; What changed?

A heady blast of piti and sukha and an all-too-brief glimpse of not-self. A sighting of The Ox methinks, though not seen since so no change there. The retreat was a timely reminder of the value of intensive practice. I came away incredibly relaxed, possibly even too relaxed. High as a kite in fact. Found myself wandering in retro headphones around Tennyson Monument at 5am the following misty morning singing ‘Wish You Were Here’ at the top of my Milarepa lungs.

What was your highlight and/or fondest memory?

Sitting next to a Danish supermodel. 

What was the worst of it?

Sitting next to a Danish supermodel. 

Marks out of 10 (multiple categories if you like).

8 out of 10. Minus 1 for the bloke in the next tent who woke me up several times in the middle of the night, apparently talking to himself, though I reckon he was on the phone. And minus another 1 for the Parliament of Crow’s cacophonous dawn chorus which was, to put it mildly, ‘not pleasant’.

Only Two Weeks Until the Picnic!!

It’s hard to believe but this year’s Annual Buddhist Picnic will be our 21st! As is traditional we will be holding the picnic on the first Sunday of September (that’s the 2nd) on the Duver at St. Helens.

For those of you who have not been before, our picnic site is the other side of the road from the National Trust car park. Take the right hand turning by the signs showing the Duver and long stay beach front car parks, carry on a few hundred metres and the National Trust car park is on the left.

In the centre of the photo below, you can see our original meeting place, the small oak tree. As previously reported, the tree has unfortunately died and as such now offers no shade.

However, Angie and Mark have found another oak tree about a hundred meters further on along the track you can see to the right of the photo. So just carry on along the path and look for some Buddhists sitting under another small oak tree! If you’re on foot and coming from the St. Helen’s side you can go to the end of Mill Road and come across on the causeway, the “new” oak tree will be facing you to your right.

Or you could try using What3Words which will take you to the precise spot https://w3w.co/pitch.clearcut.shapes (unlock, select satellite view, zoom out as needed).

 

 

Family, friends, children and dogs welcome. Bring vegetarian food to share (don’t forget the fruit juices).

 

NEW MOON – Form and Spirit

The fragrance of virtue 
surpasses by far 
the fragrance of flowers 
or sandalwood. 

Dhammapada v. 55

The simple but significant message of this Dhammapada verse is that we need to take care to not be overly impressed by outer forms, or the material dimension of things. Certainly the fragrance of wild roses can be very beautiful, but the heart’s ability to let go of resentment and forgive, even when it is difficult to do so, is more beautiful.

I’ve just posted Vishvapani’s “Thought for the Day” from Friday onto our Audio Section.

This is the first talk from Vishvapani since the 14th of May which is a little curious. In the past Vishvapani has usually offered a “Thought” on the occasion of Vesak, the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, awakening and death which are all considered to have occurred on the first full moon of May which this year fell on the 29th.

Now he’s missed a couple of Vesaks over the years and there could be any number of reasons that he’s missed this one, but that is not my point, why are there no other Buddhists who can provide a “thought” on such an important occasion?

On Thought for the Day the majority of contributors are Christian, although there are regular Muslim and Jewish contributors and occasional Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists.

The BBC allocates the number of slots roughly in line with the proportion of each affiliation according to the latest census (2011). So, in terms of faith background, 78% of presenters were Christians, 8% Jews, 4% Muslims, 4% Sikhs, 3% Hindus and 2% Buddhists. Relative to the 2001 census of the population of the UK, and excluding those with no religious affiliation or none stated, Christians were under-represented as presenters (93% being their expected share, given Thought for the Day’s current brief).

By contrast, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists were over-represented in leading Thought for the Day, with the representation of Muslims nearly right in terms of the census (although their numbers have increased considerably since that time).

So, we are not going to get many slots, in fact from when I started posting “Thoughts for the Day” back in 2010 Vishvapani has averaged 8 talks a year but, coming back to my point, it is only ever Vishvapani who supplies a Buddhist Thought for the Day, surely the BBC can find another Buddhist or two to take up the slack and provide some variety of presentation.

What Are We Waiting For?

The talk which I took along for Thursday night’s meeting of the Newport Soto Zen group was by Catherine McGee and entitled “What Are We Waiting For”.

It prompted this thoughtful response from Sylvia…………………..

I went to sangha last night and someone brought a taped talk with this title. It struck me, that though the talk was about practice and enlightenment, it applied to everything. Of course, practice and enlightenment are potentially in everything too.

We plan our lives ahead, as if we are always waiting for the next thing. That blocks us in the moment.

THIS IS THE MOST COMMON CAUSE OF UNHAPPINESS.

That joy of being alive in any given moment is the point of mindfulness, it is why we study and practice our meditations, practice watching our breath. To be mindful is to be actually living our lives, not vicariously glancing at others for comparisons, or over our shoulder at the past, or gazing into the future.

Future Gazing can be the most insidious of all since it keeps us moving forward, what will my next best piece of writing be and how will it be received, when I get to this point then I can do that, when I have worked out then I will feel better.

NONONONONONONONONONONONONONONO!!!!!!!!!!

That is all completely topsy-turvy and utterly illogical for two reasons.

1. IF you always make your enjoyment of your life conditional you will probably never reach true happiness and only experience fleeting moments because there will always be the next thing to achieve or complete or accomplish.

2. YOU are missing the chance of being happy right now- yes right now, regardless of the problems in your life or what is making you unhappy, you can change that right now.

External issues cannot make you unhappy, or happy even, unless you give them permission to do so.

Just occasionally they can mount up to an avalanche and take you unawares, making your resilience buckle under the strain. But even then happiness in each and every moment is a choice. We can be stressed out by the enormity of it all but we can also choose to stop and take a mindful breath and enjoy that moment of life just for its own sake.

When the monks in Tibet were being tortured by the Chinese authorities to rescind their practice, they did not. They were able to surpass the physical agony being inflicted upon them and still feel more concern and compassion for the torturers. Losing that capacity was their greatest fear. That is something I have taken as a deep lesson in life.

When my back went a couple of years ago, arthritis and two collapsed discs, I was in an enormous amount of pain,plus my compensations had pushed another disc out of place further up. I decide to consider this example deeply and meditated on it in depth. on most people’s scales that would be considered a major ‘ouch’.

I found I too could transcend the pain if I just accepted it. Instead of struggling against it and rejecting it, I found there was a rhythm to it, the pulses of the neurons, so I watched those instead, and their rhythms became soothing. I used my breathing a lot and found the releases of endorphines very pleasant indeed. I could suddenly understand the so-called religious people historically who used to keep their bodies semi damaged through hair shirts and self-flagellation. It feels quite transcendent.

So I viewed my back as a source of both pleasure and pain. I have since had some medical pain relief treatment which was supposed to last 3–6 months. Eighteen months later on and I am almost pain-free. I have done a deal with my back. I won’t put it under any more strain if she doesn’t hurt me more than necessary to remind me to take better care of her. It is working well for both of us.

But life I have just got on with, including continuing my passion for gardening and dancing to my husband’s band, and loved every minute. If I’d put a condition on being able to do those things when my back stopped hurting, I would have missed out on many extra joyful moments in those months. I have decided to be happy in each moment as far as I was able to, which is pretty much most of the time.

AS you will know if you have read any other articles of mine, I am also post PTSD and can still get triggered. This is a very unpleasant occurrence, my body locks down into a sort of rigid defensive position and I become somewhat paranoid and distrustful of life, and especially whatever or whoever it was that triggered me.

I have learned that focussing on being happy in the next moment gets me out of it more and more quickly. I have now read that I am doing the right thing since I need to retrain my amygdala to be less sensitive and decommission all the stress related systems further e.g. cortisol and adrenaline, whilst simultaneously increasing the happy ones like dopamine and serotonin. 

Guess what, being mindfully happy in the present moment is the best way forward. Mindfulness actually heals nervous systems broken from abuse and trauma. 

Furthermore, if you can then reframe those experiences into a positive, it challenges the cognitive retreat into paranoia and distrustfulness and what is basically a whole chronic fear package. It transforms it into a positive opportunity or even better neutralises it into a ‘just what happened, not real any more’, i.e. it was and now it no longer is. 

I also take the Tibetan monks example and work on having compassion for those who trigger me, firstly to dissolve the fear-based reactions I get when I encounter the triggers further, and secondly because I genuinely understand that they are also on their own journey and will make mistakes and have to shed dark underbellies full of their own trauma and other negative emotional historical experiences before they can be free of the energy in them which triggered me. Having taken that journey and of course being still on it, I understand how hard it is sometimes to see what your next area of effort should be directed towards. Until it hits you in the face of course, then you are or should not be in any doubt this is next. I will come to them also. 

SO yes I need to lose some weight, improve my fitness levels, get more organised, clean my potting shed up and tidy all the pots that are needing to be put away until next years seedling rush. I have a huge list of things I really need to get on with for my bees, for my family etc, etc etc., even for myself. But in this moment, I am not waiting for anything — I am thoroughly happy just doing one of them, which is to write up this thought train to share, and then it is …. oooh I have so much to chose from for next, but I shall let that develop out of the now ending when I hit publish. Because by then it will be a new ‘now’ to be exquisitely happy in for that opportunity to get something done. And in between, a few mindful breaths to remind me of the joy of clean air and life itself. 

I am so glad I made the effort to go to that Sangha last night.