The very first day up on the island was instantly exhilharating. I used to take so long to get into the island groove. Days. And now it happens almost as soon as i set foot on the sheep-nibbled springy grass.
I was trying out some of the mantras i’d learnt from other faiths. Particularly the ‘namah shivayah’ from hinduism and the ‘ribbono shel olam’ of judaism. Saying them out aloud as i strode up the flank of the island was magical. Singing krishna chants was also electrifying.
As i hopped and skipped back along the bracken-less path (how beautifully naked the island looks without all its summer foliage) and went into the residents shrineroom atop the boathouse for chenrezig, i felt heady and giddy. In less than 4 hours I’d arrived at the same warm, expansive state that i used to reach after a week in retreat at samye ling. Was it the chanting? Was it shouting ‘allahu akbar’ at the sea from the top of St Molaise’s preaching rock?
Mantras. Who would have thought? The me who peers myopically from my past at my present would rumple his nose: chanting? Hare krishna? But why not? I set my heart on experimentation and that requires doing what feels foolish – but works wonderfully.
Why not? That was the thrust of my course up on Holy Island. “After the ABC” is was called. Though beyond the basics I tread with humility. I’ve only been practising for 7 years. Compared to some of the true Dharma teachers that’s a blip. Nor have those 7 years been particularly arduous. So what I wanted to offer was less a continuation of the ABC but the space to try stuff out.
Lots of my lovely students came back. And it was magical teaching people who were already convinced of the benefits. What i offered was a laboratory. A ‘meditation lab’ where they could try out new stuff. Explore more psychological, more obviously ‘spiritual’ practices. (The fact I wrote ‘religious’ first, crossed it out and put ‘mystical’ before finally settled on ‘spiritual’ only emphasizes how powerful/off-putting these words can be.)
And that idea of ‘why not?’ was central.
Why not insist that your mind will take you to perfect states of happiness? Why not imagine a world that is free from illness, inequality or greed? All our mental ideas of the world are fictional, based on very limited information anyway- why not imagine the best of possible worlds for ourselves?
Why not imagine supernatural amounts of kindness, creativity, sexuality, love? We never stop for a moment to worry about how negative we can be – or question the veracity of our self-flagellating, self-critical voices?
What is this ‘realism’ that people always cling to? Is it any more realistic to believe that all our streets are full of child-molesting, bag-stealing junkies than to believe that they’re full of kind-hearted, decent folk who want the best for themselves and those around them?
Why not believe in the Good? Is it any more fanciful than always believing in the Bad?
In fact I’ve become very sqeamish around newspapers. A friend of mine always insists that it’s important to ‘be informed’ but I’m not at all convinced that reading a newspaper or watching TV news keeps you informed about reality. You have an incredibly skewed, negative, politically-twisted version of reality which tells you a lot about the world of media and journalism but not so much about the reality of the world around us. Even as my eyes stray hungrily to the headlines of Metro or one of the London free papers, I’m aware that they’re like a dog eating discarded old kebabs off the pavement in high summer. It’s an instinctive noshing that does the stomach of my mind no good.
All magazines, papers and TV are designed to make you feel inadequate.
That’s why retreat is so powerful. No papers, no radio, no talking about work, no politics. Just people, walking, talking, being on your own.
So many people freak out when we have a silent day. (Though some people love it.) But being silent, alone with your own response to the Universe is gorgeous. It’s better than almost anything. I was reading the writings of the Abbot of Ware Abbey, Christopher Jamison, who talked about creating sanctuary in yourself. Not the geographical seclusion of an abbey or an island but the spiritual seclusion of solitude and silence. The day of silence on the Island is a way of forcing people’s hand. Like Trungpa says, boredom is a powerful emotion, it can push us right into the heart of enlightenment.
I also organised an all-night sit. This is something that’s quite common in the Thai tradition I studied in. At Chithurst monastery there used to be an all-night sit on every lunar quarter (so almost once a week). But for beginners the idea of sitting through the 8 hours of the night is terrifying.
Still the hardness of the task, the bodily exhaustion, the mental haze that comes from tiredness really did work wonders. I’ve often experienced how in the middle of the night, all your mental defences go down, time elasticates and insight drops down like rain.
There’s a lovely bit of teaching by St. Teresa of Avila who says that there are four ways of bringing wisdom and spirituality in to a life. The first three are like irrigating a garden with water – pumping it, channelling it, carrying it in buckets – the fourth is like rain. Lay like the thirsty earth and let the rain fall. Meditating through the night can make you like that thirsty earth.
I suppose the biggest shift in the course and in me was that openness to a sense of divinity – of some bigger power dropping down like rain – or indeed flooding me like tidal wave.
On the morning of the third day I asked everyone in the group about their beliefs. Whether they had any sense of divinity or God and how religion had played in their lives. It was amazing how many people have a damaged or distorted idea of God. Even though I asked about their spirituality almost everyone talked about religion: about the church they went to, the faith of their parents.
I was exactly the same. Somewhere along my biographical way I lost that sense of bigness. Perhaps it was at university where it was frowned on to believe in God. Perhaps it was in my existentialist phase high up in a flat in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Perhaps it was my keenly logical acceptance of ‘atheistic’ Buddhism. Anyway, somewhere along the way I denied myself the ability to be supported – to dissolve into a Massive Embrace.
(“Massive Embrace”, that was the name of a play I wrote at University… in the play the phrase is used to describe the support of water when you swim out of your depth. Any thoughts of God were firmly repressed back then.)
Somehow – through my experiences in Brazil, through the Artist’s Way – I’ve been stumbling back towards God.
The word ‘God’ worries me, however. The thing I am learning to embrace is nothing to do with the God of my Christian upbringing, who was a player in the authoritarian house of mirrors created by my childhood psyche. This new sense of God is more pervasive. I glimpsed it forcibly in my ayahuasca journies and gently in my recent meditation. And it’s a sense of divinity all around, in the totality of things. The Dharmakaya: an immanent God.
An Idealist God would be anathema to me. The idea that the mess of the human world – the greed, the sex, the dying and the over population – is all a pale mockery of the perfection of the distant Divine. I have never subscribed to that. I actually think Idealism is rather pernicious. It implies that maya, samsara, the carnal world of flesh and foible is somehow distasteful and not worthy. Whereas in my heart I’ve always known if there was a Divinity, then it existed in the very smell and dust and mud and blood of the real world.
If we cannot see God in everything – dead goats, drunken yobs, spring buds, morning birdsong, car noise, powerstations and scaffolding on the front of Chartres – then we are not looking hard enough.
I’ve become very aware of how every object I handle has been made by people. People with lives and sorrows. People who have worked in designing my computer, laboured in the sunshine building my house, laughed as they assembled this train i’m riding in, picking the hops that went into my beer. And all of that is sacred and magical – not to be dismissed as mara or mere earthly stuff. There’s a wonderful Browning quote that glows true:
earth’s crammed with heaven
and every common bush afire with god
but only he who sees
takes off his shoes