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From the Scarborough Retreat

[This is an excerpt from the recent ‘Tender Heart’ Scarborough Retreat held in March 2019.]

Q: You mentioned the Earth being already enlightened and that it was the Earth that made us enlightened, not our own efforts, Can you elaborate on that?

A: The truth is that the thinking mind, the ego, can’t get anywhere near enlightenment. It’s like writing the word ‘lasagne’ on a piece of paper, eating it, and expecting it to taste like lasagne. The thinking mind is doing a different thing. It’s labelling, analysing, categorising, which is fine – but it can’t experience things directly. And it can’t get enlightened.

It’s the Earth in us that meditates not us.

Instead, we have to relax the thinking mind and tune in to the always-enlightened energy of the Earth, of the space around us, of awareness. It’s perpetually enlightened. As Reggie says, the Earth is always in a meditative state. It’s the Earth in us that meditates not us. Our ego can only play at meditating, but through the body, we can tune in to that constant effulgent state of wakefulness, that is in the Earth, in the sky, in the natural world.

In the Buddhist framework, there is a self-existing field of awake awareness that is always and constantly there. Nothing we do can change it. We only forget to tune in to it.

Our efforts – more often than not – get in the way.

Now, depending on your faith or philosophical background that always-existing awareness – loving, wise, present – might be God, or Krishna consciousness or the Dharmakaya. But the important thing is that it is way, way bigger than the thinking mind. Way bigger than the ego.

We kid ourselves that it is our efforts that create these moments of enlightenment but actually it’s just this already-existing wakefulness breaking through. Our efforts more often than not get in the way. What we really need to do is get ourselves out of the way.

wakefulness breaks through like tidal water flooding through a sluice gate

It’s hard because our schooling and upbringing and the culture we live in all propagandise us into thinking that it’s our ego efforts that count. But actually, in this field, they mess us up.

I’ve found that these somatic practices, however, really help open up the space for that wakefulness to break through and wash in, like tidal water flooding through a sluice gate.

I think it was Daido Roshi who said that ‘Enlightenment is an accident. But meditation makes us accident-prone.

Somatic practice makes moments of ‘grace’ more numerous

We’ve probably all had those moments of ‘grace’ – to borrow the Christian term – when we suddenly, and from no effort of our own, feel filled with love for the world or see the greater picture. But I’ve found that these somatic practices make those moments much more numerous. They’re not so dramatic but – over time, organically – I find myself more and more loving to the world. Or at least more tender.

Admittedly, six years of therapy probably helped. [laughter] (Therapy is a wonderful lineage of its own, like Buddhism). And I also spent 10 years working with Ayahuasca in Brazil – a really powerful plant medicine and psychedelic, which really blew the doors off and let me know what I was missing. But in a way that was too extreme. I saw the whole Universe but I couldn’t integrate it.

These practices work much more organically. I find myself liking people more and more, whereas 6 years ago I thought everyone was an arsehole.

The body doesn’t let itself get mugged on the NYC subway

Q; But can’t it also be dangerous? I remember having an opening experience on the New York Subway one night. Back when the subway was kinda dangerous. And I suddenly felt like I loved absolutely everyone. It was only when it passed later on that I thought how dangerous it might have been.

A: But it wasn’t… While you were full of love, did it feel dangerous? Was there any danger?

Q: No.

A: But later on your thinking mind imagined all sorts of dangers. This is what the thinking mind does.

When we are completely in the body we don’t see danger when there isn’t any. It’s not like we run into knives or make ourselves deliberately vulnerable. The body has an exquisite intelligence and a natural sense of wisdom when it comes to reality. It keeps us effortless safe but it doesn’t shut us off needlessly. It stays open, alert and alive.

Our defence mechanisms are the things that hurt us

The ego is frightened of life and it’s constantly trying to turn away from it. It’s the nature of the thinking mind. We push away or cling onto or ignore. These are the three great ways of avoiding life: aggression, grasping or dissociation. And on a very simple level of life, it’s effective. It keeps simple beings safe. But we’re actually enormously complex beings and the defence mechanism has become the thing that hurts us.

Breathing into the heart, being in the body, staying with the direct experience of life by using the breath: all this is way too risky for the thinking mind. This is why it is always trying to hijack the simplicity of being in the soma. We come into the heart, we’re there for a few moments and then – boom! – the thinking mind has taken control and is trying to organise and standardise things.

Life is only depressing and dull from the thinking mind’s viewpoint

But standardisation is deadly. It’s why we get ennui. Why do we get depressed and death-obsessed. Because the thinking mind standardises everything. “My life is so dull. The same people, the same things, the same routines. What’s the point? It’s all so pointless”. But it’s only pointless and dull from the thinking mind’s point of view. Because that is what the thinking mind does. Makes everything so standard.

But the heart experiences everything as a unique totality.

“It’s a f**cking Leylandii”

I was just sitting out there with you in the sunshine. And as you may know, I work on a TV show about property and gardens. And I absolutely hate Leylandii. And I was sitting with my heart open and my heart was, like…’This is the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen. The way the wind is blowing all the foliage in different ways, the sunshine breaking through, the sound of the wind. The totality was exquisite. And then I think: “It’s a f**king Leyladii” [laughter] And that’s what the thinking mind does. The heart is with the whole amazing, unique, total constellation of the Universe, and the thinking mind narrows everything down to a concept and then has an opinion about it.

There’s a famous story about Chogyam Trungpa and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche at some Buddhist gathering. And I always found it really annoying, actually. They’re sitting on their own in a courtyard with a beautiful fruit tree, and Trungpa leans in and says, “They call that a ‘tree'” and they both burst out laughing.

I always thought, ‘Urg, that’s so annoying and patronising. Oh those poor fools they think it’s a tree but we can see it’s real essence’ but you know, they’re right. It’s so reductive to narrow it down in that way.

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Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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