Blog post: the felt presence of a direct experience
Bellow is my experience of being a Buddhist; the things I’ve felt, the difficulties, highs, lows and teachings I’ve found useful along my journey…
As I sat on the pillow in my first meditation class I found it impossible to keep my body still, let alone my mind. An itch here, an itch there, a twinge in this ankle, a numbness in is this but cheek and an ache in the back. Any slight physical sensation distracted my restless mind. It took multiple tweaks of my posture mixed together with my body adjusting to the position over a period of weeks before I could sit comfortably for a long period of time. When eventually this passed I started to see for the first time how erratic and discursive my mind was. Despite my best attempts to beat my rambling mind into submission I had no luck. The more I pushed the more it floundered, and frustration was the result. I may not have cultivated much stillness, but it was nonetheless a haphazard break for freedom. My technique just needed a little adjusting and a little more self love. Like Jake the magical dog says in my favourite cartoon adventure time ‘sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something’. And although no meditation is technically good or bad, your technique can be more or less skillful as I would learn. I also remember my first day retreat, we were partnered up for a meditation where we verbalised our stream of consciousness to another person. This exercise really forced me to look at my mind deeply for the first time. This lesson was invaluable to me, I saw my own mind and I saw my partners. The difference was stark. My mind was a mess. Furthermore, I was not, it would seem, the author of my own mind as I had once assumed, it felt like it had a life of its own.
Often we think the path will be a perfect ascent into deeper and deeper peace. The reality is that we often fall backwards or have periods where practice falls to the way side. shortly after these experiences my practice seemed to slip away, although what I had seen in myself stayed with me, and eventually called me back for a deeper journey inwards.
Many months later I continued my journey although spirituality had never been far from my heart and mind. As I sat in meditation on Tuesday evenings I would watch my breath, get lost in thought, let it be, accept and let go… repeat. This simple yet beautiful process began to clarify something, I was not my thoughts or emotions, they would come and go, but I remained.
I was able to apply these lessons at work, for example when a colleague said something I found quite painful… I watched as my heart rate increased and a vague sense of ill will began emerging into my consciousness, yet I knew it wasn’t me. Like in meditation I watched these sensations, how they felt, and the desire to react in some unskillful way dissolved. I was calm and nonreactive. Hurrah! A small break for free freedom.
I will share another trap I’ve witnessed in myself as I’ve continued my practice: egoic appropriation of my spirituality. What I mean simply is that my ego becomes awfully proud of itself because of how spiritual its becoming. Where spiritual practice should be a relinquishing of the mask, it just becomes a new one. I have to constantly remind myself I am trying to become an ever more authentic version of who I truly deeply am, which is beyond any label, vision of grandeur or persona. I will have to revisit this again and again, for as long as I have a self everything I do will potentially be appropriated by it. And that’s okay. Accept, let it be, let it go.
I also began to learn about the wheel of life which breaks down human experience into an intricate pictorial diagram. It described how feelings arise, and we react with craving, hatred or confusion, a process we could change through practice to react more creatively and freely to reality.
It was explained to me that suffering stemmed from said craving, aversion, or confusion. Leaving my class I decided I would watch out for this over the course of the week to see for myself. So I got home, walked through my garden, and low and behold my bike had been stolen! My lovely precious bike. I began to be filled craving and the resultant psychological pain, ‘i want my bike!’ and I watched all this happen… it was the wheel of life in action, and I began to be filled with laughter. It made no sense to deny what had happened, no amount of craving would bring my bike back. Of course this sought of reaction is much easier said than done, the conditions had been perfectly set up in my favour. If I hadn’t literally just got back from a class on dharma my reaction would certainly have been different.
Some things are much harder to accept than a physical object such as a bike. For example a break up or a lost loved one. Simple acceptance doesn’t just make the pain go away. From my experience in those situations we may just have to be with our current experience, it will hurt, it will fade, it will hurt again, and we have to let ourselves feel that experience, trust me the pain will leave when its done teaching you, at least it does for me. It’s important to watch your thoughts on these occasions, how the mind is constantly drawn to the thoughts of your loss, and you wont be able to escape them right away. Meditative techniques are useful for me in these situations and they can help to stop your mind ruminating: accept, let it be, let it go. Each time you see whats happening and let it go you’ve made one more small break for freedom.
One of the greatest parts of the path has been my spiritual friendships. In my experience at their heart has always been an intention of kindness and generosity. People have again and again be a solid source of inspiration, support, love and encouragement. We are, it is clear to me, in this together. Deep emotional connection with other humans is invaluable. And as we look deeply into ourselves we can share what we find with those who want to understand us. My weekly mitra studies in particular has built some strong and deeply valued friendships. I am filled with immense gratitude to so many people, and that is a truly beautiful thing to feel.
Buddhafeild festival is one of my favourite places in the world. Here is where i did my first puja, a devotional ritual, to the Bodhisattva Tara. Tara represents qualities of compassion we can cultivate in ourselves. This puja took place in a huge tent in a field, full of people with drums and other instruments all chanting in unison, as you enter you are smudged. This is when sage, and mixture of other herb are burnt in a shell and wafted at you with a large bird feather. There is also lots of other introspective activities, such as yoga, meditation and even sweat lodges. There is no alcohol at this event and instead everyone just enjoys lots of spiced chai tea and vegan grub. Here is one of my favourite talks i saw at buddhafeild and i recommend everybody watch it! (Pause music at the top of the post to hear the audio ^ 🙂 )
After a two periods of retreat almost back to back I began to notice an overwhelming surge of deep emotion. I think possibly, this emotion had been there for quite some time originating somewhere in my childhood. A pain I’d locked away long ago was being shown to me in my practice. I can feel it now as I type. Something is arising and asking to be healed. Although not an easy experience, I am extremely grateful, because i’d never realised how numb I had previously been. What a relief. The highs got higher and the lows can get lower.
On retreat all electronic stimulation through mobiles an television is gone, we spend large periods of time in silence, and we are practising meditation, prostration and puja daily. The effect of this is that your mind is forced to look at itself. No distractions. The continuous rambling mind began to tire me, and i decided to note down the contents of my thoughts. looking back over a large list of random thought patterns two stood out to me. Firstly, a thought of inadequacy, my mind was saying i would never be able to progress spiritually, i was not good enough. Secondly, somewhere i bit further down the list i saw thoughts of grandeur, a egoistic thought saying how spiritual adept and amazing i was. I was totally unaware of this psychological split until this exercise. I began to theorise that one was in fact a reaction to the other. What underlies my ego is insecurity, my psyche would react to a sense of inadequacy by creating a sense of grandeur. The truth of the situation was that neither was true.
Fairly recently i had a very difficult experience, a romantic relationship that meant a great deal to me ended. As human beings most of us will experience this on numerous occasions throughout our lives. And nothing I had learned or cultivated in the way of mindfulness made me at all immune to this upsetting human experience. Sometimes we think that spiritual practise is a magical pill that will make us immune from pain ad suffering. This is not how it works. Shortly after it ended I couldn’t move, sleep or eat for some time. But, eventually, i realised this pain would help me grow and deepen my journey inwards… It was important for me to reach out for my spiritual friends, and carry on with my practise, when i did i began to feel better. My friends where there waiting for me, ready to show me the way, once again. Alice walker describes the whole process of growing through suffering better I could ever imagine too:
“Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognise that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or a person who explained to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realise that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.”
I realised that I had sought refuge in this other beautiful human being, that I asked her to fill my emptiness, I craved for us to last forever, and I created myself through her and our relationship, and when impermanence inevitably reared its ugly head, the self I had invested in, sculpted out of the relationship, began to crumble, and it felt like I was dying. And in a sense I was, or at least a part of an illusory self I’d mistaken myself for. Accept, let it be, let it go.
A few things i learnt through that period of my life is this
We are adequate. I have seen in myself a underlying sense of inadequacy, and i believe this is a experience a lot of us share.
Often we are waiting for that one thing to make us whole, that person, idea, concept, material object, experience, drug… Nothing external to ourselves will make us complete. We are adequate, in this moment. Happiness, and completion can only be found is inside of us.
This life, you must know
as the tiny splash of a raindrop.
A thing of beauty that disappears as it comes into being.
‘I do not have, I do not know, I do not understand’
( music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IBFMkt9KGQ
The title of this post is a quote by Terrance Mckenna, he has something very interesting to say bout direct experience:
“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.” )