This is an old blog post, but so relevant to my investigation of place in Buddhism. Now I’m no longer feeling so tied to the Tibetan Himalayas or the Coloradan Rockies, the English stones seem to be singing out for something, somehow…
the sweet sadness of a teenager trying so hard to escape the tedium
I went away a couple of weekends ago to Avebury with Gary and Charlie, the dog. It’s probably Gary’s favourite place in the world and it seems to fill him with sweet, interior light and a quietness that is quite unusual for him. It was a real treat for me to be there with him.
Personally, I don’t feel such a connection with these mournful, beautiful stones. A double circle with two-mile-long tails winding like serpents east and west. Wiltshire is a soft, feminine landscape with bare, treeless hills undulating into one another. Vast hedgeless fields.
The sweet sadness of a teenager trying so hard to escape the tedium
For years, as a teenager, I was anxious to squeeze out all the magic out of places. I was forever sitting on top of mounds, on chalk escarpments, dusky beaches willing some sort of transcendental experience. Tensing my mind into a sharp point which would puncture the numen of the place and shower me with visions. It never happened. What I remember now from those experiences is the sweet sadness of a teenager trying so hard to escape the tedium of being a teenager in Lee-on-Solent.
Probably since meditating – and definitely since Ayahuasca – I’ve been much more in the anti-transcendental school when it comes to magical places.
Holy Island, for example, is an exquisite spot with lots of spiritual history, but the many years I’ve been going there has seen me move from that attitude of digging for significance to a simpler, more direct appreciation of what’s in front of my eyes.
The trouble with transcendence is that it tends to ignore the actual. In fact, it often gets cross with the actual for not being transcendental enough. How dare that transistor radio spoil the numen of my beach! How dare those naff tourists intrude on the magic of my woodland moment! How dare it rain!
This is, of course, deeply Buddhist in its trajectory. Moving from how things should be to how they really are. And its precisely this anti-idealism that puts some people off Buddhism and attracts others. If you start from an acceptance of everything exactly as it is – then you can never be unhappy as you go about your life working with it: you’re not lying to yourself and your enjoyments and frustrations are at least based on honesty.
I felt profoundly at peace with that plainness.
Similarly, I could have made myself unhappy next to Gary’s wrapt enjoyment of the stones, screwing up my mind to find some transcendent meaning of my own. But even as I sat meditating at dusk in the West Kennet Longbarrow, the oldest construction in the United Kingdom, I just felt the damp earth under my buttcheeks and the strange, muffled silence of the chamber. I didn’t have visions, nor did I hear an ancient voice. But I felt profoundly at peace with that plainness.
One of my teachers, Ajahn Succitto, talked about a retreat where he decided to eschew any reading material. For 3 months, he declined to fill his meditating mind with glorious, inspiring thoughts from the canon and from Buddhist literature. Instead, he spends 90 days sitting with – and this is the phrase that I love so much – ‘dull, dribbly mind’. If you make peace with a dull, dribbly mind then everything else in life is like a spray of fireworks.
Real-life is really wonderful enough. Witness the stone. It just stands there for 3000 years experiencing the sun rising and setting. Everything else is a blessed bonus.