a very little water in the sun

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

12 Comments

  1. Amanda

    March 28, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    I was struggling with some of that for a while, and will re-read it a few more time – but a big light came on when I read your last section. Seeing God in everything. Yes, yes, yes.
    Also, your comment on being aware of all the people who make their mark in making your world. I think I follow that. I often look at ppl and wonder what means everything to them…they may mean nothing to me, but what are the things that mean the world to them? That probably makes no sense, but I know what I mean!
    I’m glad you have confidence with your students and that they’re responding.

  2. Kelly

    March 31, 2007 at 7:54 pm

    You find yourself in a wonderfully alive place, and you are kind to share with us your perceptions and thoughts on it. For that I thank you most sincerely. From time to time I, too, experience the smallest glimpses of this place, but they flee from me when I seek to grasp them and hold them in the palm of my mind’s hand.

  3. tracy jenneson

    April 7, 2007 at 3:58 am

    How do you do it Alistair? It’s like you picked a passage of my soul and read it out loud! Your beautiful optimism is a breath of fresh air and it takes me to every day that I have ever been happy in my whole life — thankfully that is MOST of the days of my life, because I too have seen EVERYTHING touched by the sun as a beautiful gift. I am also unimpressed by the skewed “reality” that the media has us try to swallow. Sometimes I fall to peer pressure and forget to see the shapes in the clouds, the glow of light through a leaf — you just reminded me that I AM NOT THE ONLY ONE! THANK YOU!

  4. David London

    April 10, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    What a good read, I’ve drowned in your thoughts. I was
    meditating in my room the other day, and was struggling
    with myself. I felt like someone trying to stay underwater,
    but the air in my lungs kept raising my body to the
    surface. You can only sink for so long before nature pulls
    you back up again, its just the way of things. Isn’t that
    comforting?

    David

  5. Valerie W

    April 16, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    I took a moment today to look at these pictures while here
    in Northeast USA were having RAIN, RAIN , RAIN. (Could be
    worse could be SNOW,SNOW,SNOW.) and they made me feel like
    I was in a Spring breeze, laundry or cloth flapping in the
    wind, the sounds of peacefulness all around. Thanks for the
    moment.

  6. Eric

    April 17, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    Have you ever tried reciting the chalisa? It’s a very powerful/celebratory mantra. I’m taking part in a Satsang group and find it a very empowering thing to sing every morning.

  7. JayVinVermont

    June 23, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    I love your reference to St Teresa of Avila…about the rain.
    I’ve always thought God’s grace is like the rain, falling on all of us – all of us with our imprefections – equally. This past Thursday, I had a chance to attend a gathering of people in my city, on Lake Champlain in Vermont, to celebrate the Summer Solstice. Such an experience of mysterium tremendum! I like your blog, Alistair.

  8. Tim S

    August 8, 2007 at 8:07 am

    It was the reference to Holy Island that caught my imagination, this is a place I visited often as a child and adolescent. I returned as an adult from Australia and the place still filled me with wonder. What is it thought that you are sensing when you connect with the universe? I have a problem with ‘God’ or ‘God’ equivalents when reality is so overwhelming and so wonderous without attributing it to a higher being or concept.

    So when are you coming to Oz to surf? meditate? explore aboriginal connectedness to creation?

  9. Tomas

    September 3, 2007 at 12:51 am

    Voce es muito bonito Allistair. Gusto mucho de voce.

    Ciao!
    Tomas- edade26 NYC,USA

  10. sarah

    October 10, 2007 at 10:05 am

    Dear Alistair,

    if this life exists isn’t it possible that another one with more mind blowing emotions, sights, sounds, adventures and creations will exist after we exit here…john 17:1-3

    You are beautiful, and God who created you loves how you adore his creation and loves you…He has greater things planned for you than you could ever imagine.

    Thank you for sharing 🙂 I feel blessed by your insight, and your talent for writing.

    ~Sarah

  11. Newark

    March 14, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Great points…I would note that as someone who really doesn’t write on blogs much (in fact, this may be my first post), I don’t think the term “lurker” is very becoming to a non-posting reader. It’s not your fault really , but perhaps the blogosphere could come up with a better, non-creepy name for the 90% of us that enjoy just reading the posts.

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